Caring for all horses great and small

Over 1,400 horses, from thoroughbreds to trotters and ponies, are treated each year at UCD's veterinary hospital

Resident vet Vivienne Duggan performing gastroscopy on a horse at the UCD veterinary hospital
Resident vet Vivienne Duggan performing gastroscopy on a horse at the UCD veterinary hospital

Ireland is home to one of the biggest populations of equines in Europe, with some 180,000 horses and ponies registered between the sport horse and thoroughbred sectors.

Due to these high numbers, it is not surprising that equine vets are constantly in high demand across the country for both routine and emergency procedures.

Injuries, ailments and sickness in horses comes part and parcel with horse ownership, but advances in equine veterinary medicine and the growing number of excellent veterinary surgeons in Ireland mean that if your horse is injured or ill, you can rely on your vet's expert care.

The majority of Ireland's equine veterinary surgeons today have graduated through UCD in Dublin.

The university offers the only degree course in veterinary medicine in Ireland and the on-site hospital has been integral to the success of the veterinary medicine programme for many years and its worldwide accreditation.

Since moving to its state-of-the-art facilities in 2002, the hospital has offered unrivalled services to owners of equines suffering from a wide range of ailments, from lameness to colic, trauma and orthopaedic injuries.

It is estimated that approximately 6,000 small and large animals are treated each year, with a further 12,000 diagnostic laboratory samples processed by the large team of senior and specialized veterinary academic staff.

Of that number, some 1,400 horses are treated by the members of the equine team with approximately 650 horses being treated in the equine surgery discipline. This is open 24-hours a day for emergencies.

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Through its varied services, the hospital also allows students to complete their clinical training using some of the more advanced techniques and equipment in the country. While students are involved with all of the cases, this is always under the direct supervision of the veterinary specialists.

As Professor of Veterinary Surgery, originally from the Netherlands, Pieter Brama has seen the team of specialists at the equine clinic evolving it into one of the finest veterinary hospitals in Europe.

"We have some of the best Irish equine specialists here in their field - from medicine to diagnostic imaging," he said.

These include equine surgery specialists John Mark O'Leary and Clodagh Kearney and specialists Vivienne Duggan and Lisa Katz in equine medicine, supported by specialists in anaesthesia, diagnostic imaging, clinical pathology and many other specialities.

Prior to coming to Ireland Professor Brama had a long history with sport horses, knowledge which he has since used to develop the treatments available to the growing sport horse sector here.

He has a particular interest in cartilage repair and joint disease in horses and was the first to develop a surgical treatment for thrombosis of the aorta, a rare but debilitating disease.

"For a long time people presumed it is only the most exclusive thoroughbreds being treated here, but nowadays more and more people are aware that any horse, show jumpers, trotters, ponies and pleasure horses of all shapes and sizes are welcome to benefit from either routine or highly sophisticated treatments offered at the clinic."

While clients are charged for medications and procedures, the hospital does not exist as a merely "for profit" business. Professor Brama believes that the teaching hospital environment means that all patients receive a high standard of care. "As we are trying to teach our students best practice - we always strive to be thorough in our diagnostic investigations. As the veterinary specialists are also in the business of teaching final year students, a lot of time can be devoted to discussing cases, and investigating the best possible treatment options.

"Therefore the time and attention that the specialists will spend on each case is not necessarily reflected in the bills the owners receive."

Additionally, having staff members so actively involved in research means that there is always a drive to bring the most current and up to date treatments to our clients.


Any profits made by the hospital are used to continually develop the facilities and expertise. The hospital boasts a full range of state of the art facilities and equipment and is particularly proud to have the first dedicated veterinary CT scanner in Ireland for horses.

While some treatments for horses are admittedly expensive, the hospital also understands that most owners do not have limitless funds, and the clinicians are always happy to work with the client and the referring vet to come up with the best treatment option to suit both the horse's needs and the client's budget.

"We are sometimes the end of the road for owners who have tried other treatments using their own vets. We also find we are getting quite a number of horses presenting with colic each year.

"Fortunately we are well-equipped here and have a team in place if and when we need to do surgery.

"The perception is that the success rates for those needing surgery is always poor but with current facilities and specialists on call 24/7 this is no longer the case for many cases."

The hospital also caters for horses with fractures, also often presumed to have a very poor prognosis, but again the highly skilled staff and capability of the CT scanner to provide 3D reconstructure of the fracture before going into surgery optimises the repair.

Followed by its Anderson sling recovery system after surgery, horses with serious fractures can safely recover from general anaesthesia. Horses awaken suspended in a sling in a standing position so that they do not have to struggle to rise to their feet, thus avoiding further injury.

"We are also continuously expanding our services and we are delighted to now offer an ambulatory dentistry service through our ambulatory equine vet Aoife Quigley.

"We have invested heavily in skills in this area and also equipment over the last year or so because we felt that was an area that did not get a lot of veterinary attention in Ireland.

"Additionally with the reinforcement of the surgical team with John Mark O'Leary who has obtained significant training in dentistry under Professor Paddy Dixon in the UK we have the most extensive denstistry service available for horses on the Island, computed tomography, sinoscopy, and extractions are common procedures in our hospital," said Pieter Brama.

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