Whether it is in the Olympics, Major League Baseball, college football or horse racing, the use of multiple pain-relieving drugs to enhance performance is a major concern. Now, one University of Missouri-Columbia veterinarian is testing different combinations of non-steroidal, pain-killing drugs in horses to determine if their use actually enhances performance and to identify any side effects the drugs may cause.
"Our hypothesis is that combining drugs won't make much difference on the lameness of the horse," said Kevin Keegan, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVS, an associate professor of veterinary medicine and surgery. "Our previous research shows that combining drugs does not contribute to better performance of these horses and in fact, may even cause harm to the animal."
To study the horses' conditions before and after drug treatment, Keegan uses a sophisticated computer motion detection system-the same system used for computer generated graphics in movies such as "The Lord of the Rings." Lame horses are brought to the MU College of Veterinary Medicine where they are treated with one of two different drug combinations. Keegan, who does not know which combination the horse has received, then attaches reflective markers to the horse at various places on its body and places it on a treadmill.
Once on the treadmill, cameras film the horse from several angles and feed the data into a computer, which analyzes the movement at specific points designated by the markers. Depending on the positions of the markers as the horse moves, the camera can determine whether or not the horse is exhibiting signs of lameness. So far, Keegan has examined 20 horses, and he hopes to study at least 35 by the end of the study.
"These drugs that we are using in this study are not steroids or stimulants," Keegan said. "Often the horse might appear to be moving fine to the human eye after a drug treatment, but this motion detection system can see the finer points of movement. Since we're examining the horse both before and after two different drug treatments, we are able to analyze in detail whether these drug combinations actually help the horse."
Within the same study protocol, other MU scientists also are investigating if an increased risk of gastrointestinal problems with the use of combinations of drugs exists. While people who treat the horses may feel they are helping the animals overcome pain, they actually may be increasing the damage caused to them, Keegan said. His research is being funded by the United States Equestrian Federation.