Success Story of the Month: Subtle Symptoms, Unexpected Diagnosis

Puzzling and Inconsistent Symptoms

Wilbur in 2008

In 2008, Wilbur (Whats New In Blue), was four years into his successful hunter career. Wilbur made a great team with Shannon’s son, Kyle, and had always loved his job as a hunter on the quarter horse and hunter circuits. At that same time, however, Wilbur began to show subtle signs of discomfort like occasional stiffness, unwelcome reactions to common activities such as grooming, and slight behavioral changes. To the average person, this may have been overlooked, but Shannon and Kyle both noticed and became concerned.

“Although he never stopped at a fence, occasionally he would dig or paw in his stall at night or appear stiff, almost mechanical,” Shannon said. “He didn’t do it often, though, so it was hard to diagnose.”

Because they were usually out of state traveling on the circuit when Wilbur’s already inconsistent signs of pain occurred, Shannon’s only option was to rely on the veterinarians at the shows and at the trainer’s farm, sometimes hours away.

Wilbur on the cover of the AQHA Journal May 2007

“Often by the time we would walk him to the vet to be examined, his symptoms would have disappeared,” Shannon said. “We X-rayed and ultrasounded everything. Wilbur’s multiple X-rays, ultrasounds and flexion tests were all normal.”

These veterinary visits and discomfort continued for almost a year when she decided to consider joint injections in his legs.

“Up until that point Wilbur had not been injected, but with no real plan, we injected his hocks, stifles and coffin joints and changed farriers as well as shoes,” Shannon said. “Wilbur saw at least a half a dozen different vets that year in probably just as many states, but not only did the injections and bar shoes not help, his symptoms were becoming more frequent.”

Throughout the year, Wilbur did not show any signs of lameness, which made the problem even more perplexing. Something was making Wilbur uncomfortable and it was getting worse. Shannon feared the worst; Wilbur’s career seemed to be coming to an end and he was only nine years old.

A Trip to Gainesville

Early one morning in 2009, Shannon arrived at the barn to feed. Once again, Wilbur had dug deep holes in his stall, but more alarming, he did not want to pick up his head to eat. That was when Shannon decided to take him to the UF Large Animal Hospital in Gainesville, Fla.

Dr. Chris Sanchez, Associate Professor of Large Animal Internal Medicine, took the case.

“Wilbur had been to UF a couple times prior and I was fortunate to get ahold of Dr. Sanchez who had seen him previously for an unrelated issue,” Shannon said. “She was at our trailer as I unloaded him in Gainesville three hours later.”

Unfortunately, Wilbur’s symptoms had disappeared when they got him in the stall, but Dr. Sanchez hoped that if a problem existed, she would be able to find it whether she could see the problem or not.

“Wilbur’s pain could have been caused by a number of different problems,” Dr. Sanchez said. “That is why I started with a complete physical exam.”

The moment Dr. Sanchez palpated the vertebrae in his neck, Wilbur jumped so high that he left the ground. She also noticed a decrease in cervical range of motion. Dr. Sanchez sent him for neck X-rays immediately, which showed degenerative joint disease in his cervical spine.

Dr. Sanchez gave Wilbur ultrasound-guided cervical facet injections. These injections consist of an antibiotic and a steroid in order to help decrease the pain and treat inflammation in the joint. They also help prevent further damage from degenerative joint disease.

“After 12 months and thousands of dollars, I couldn’t believe that all Wilbur needed was a simple neck exam to provide the answers we so desperately needed,” Shannon said.

Dr. Sanchez sent Wilbur home with Equioxx, an oral non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug that can help control the pain and inflammation associated with degenerative joint disease. She also recommended stall rest with hand walking for one week and a gradual return to exercise.

A Positive Outcome

Wilbur in 2011

Soon after, Wilbur started throwing his head again while playing and turning his head, not his entire body, when looking at something. He stopped pawing, digging and appearing stiff and uncomfortable since that first injection in 2009. Three years later, Wilbur still comes to UF every 12 to 18 months for the joint injections.

“His lead changes became easy again, and although not all of the changes were immediate, we couldn’t believe the overall difference the neck injections had made,” Shannon said.

He and Kyle finished that year as the AQHA Youth Highpoint Champion in Equitation Over Fences for the nation and third in Working Hunter. Earlier in 2009, Shannon wasn’t sure if Wilbur would be able to even finish the show year.

“Wilbur is a great horse,” Dr. Sanchez said. “I was happy to see his personality return after his neck felt better. Kyle and Wilbur’s success on the circuit since his diagnosis has also been extremely rewarding.”

“Although Wilbur is still working and showing at age 13, his schedule is not as full and his jumps are lower as we recognize and work with his limitations,” Shannon said. “I am extremely grateful to Dr. Sanchez and UF for providing the answers and care that Wilbur needed to remain comfortable and continue his job. He has been an amazing horse for our family.”

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