Lasers are changing the options available to horse owners whose animals need surgical procedures.

"Laser surgery can not only save horse owners money for certain procedures, it can also be more effective than traditional surgery, with fewer complications," said Sabrina Brounts, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVS, a veterinary surgeon at the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine in Madison.

The school's Large Animal Hospital recently obtained both carbon dioxide (CO2) and diode laser surgery instrumentation in order to provide clients with new options for treatment of upper respiratory, urogenital, musculoskeletal, and skin problems.

Squamous cell carcinoma
Surgery site following laser removal

Squamous cell carcinoma, before and after removal with a CO2 laser.

Brounts noted that laser surgery is minimally invasive and does not always require general anesthesia.

"This means a procedure can be performed standing, which is less risk for a horse because recovery time is quicker," she said. "Sometimes a procedure can even be done as an outpatient, where the horse comes in and goes home the same day."

She pointed out that lasers seal small blood and lymph vessels, thereby decreasing edema (or swelling) after surgery. Lasers also seal small nerves in the tissue, which decreases pain after surgery and makes the patient more comfortable more quickly.

All of these factors mean that there is less risk of complications, so some surgeries that are not practical with conventional methods can be undertaken with laser.

For example, a 22-year-old Paint horse that had developed a rapidly-growing squamous cell carcinoma just below its anus was recently referred to the School of Veterinary Medicine in Madison. Traditional surgery was not an option because removal of the growth would have interfered with sensitive tissues. But laser surgery combined with injected-bead chemotherapy left the horse comfortable again and able to be ridden.

The school's surgeons used a CO2 laser to provide a precise, concentrated, high-power light source with minimal thermal damage to surrounding tissue.

"Tumors are easily removed with the CO2 laser," Brounts said. "The CO2's beam allows tumorous tissue to be shaved away with great precision, avoiding damage to other surrounding tissue. This means there is less chance of a recurrence of tumors such as sarcoids, melanomas, or fibroid papillomas."

A diode laser, on the other hand, has a lower wavelength than the CO2 lasers. Its beam is transmitted through a flexible fiber, which can be passed through the biopsy channel of an endoscope or used in conjunction with a laparoscope or arthroscope. It is generally used to treat upper respiratory conditions such as ethmoid hematomas (nasal bleeding), soft palate problems, guttural pouch conditions, or urogenital problems such as uterine cysts.

Diode lasers can also be used to help fuse joints (such as the lower joints in the hock) if traditional joint injections are no longer working. Laser treatment speeds up the fusion process, allowing the patient to find relief from pain more quickly.

Horse owners in the Wisconsin area who would like to know if laser surgery might benefit a condition in their horse can call the school's Large Animal Hospital at 608/263-7600 for more information.

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