Healthier And Happier Horses

By Dr. Jerry Dilsaver, D.V.M.
Interviewed by Melissa Moniz
Wednesday - January 09, 2008
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Dr. Jerry Dilsaver, D.V.M.
Dr. Jerry Dilsaver, D.V.M.

Dr. Jerry Dilsaver, D.V.M.


Interviewed by Melissa Moniz

How long have you been a veterinarian?

Since 1971.

Have horses always been your area of specialty?

As far as what you study in school, you have to study everything. Right after I graduated from veterinary school, I went into the Air Force for two years because the Air Force had a veterinary core at the time, but they don’t have it anymore. Anyway, they stationed me here in Hawaii and after I got out, I stayed here because I like it. I developed an interest in horses after I got out of veterinary school and during my vacation time I worked for a veterinarian who did horses. So that’s what I wanted to do from the time I graduated.

Is it common for veterinarians to specialize in one animal?

It is fairly common now. Most veterinarians either go into small animal practice or horses or food animals like cattle and swine and that sort of thing.

What are the more common ailments that you treat with the horses?

I see a lot of problems with parasites. With all species of animals you see that, but even more in Hawaii because it’s a tropical climate. It’s a paradise for parasites as well - they do really well here. Accidents are pretty common - skin cuts and that sort of thing. And the reason people keep horses a lot of time is for their athletic ability, so I do a lot of work with lameness cases. With lameness it’s really hard to diagnose where it is a lot of times. We also see abscesses in their feet, an infection in their feet from standing where it’s wet and muddy all the time. The horse will be fine one day and suddenly have a lot of pain in their legs.

Dr. Jerry Dilsaver performs a dental procedure on a horse on the Big Island
Dr. Jerry Dilsaver performs a dental procedure on a horse on the Big Island

Because the horse is such a large and strong animal, do you often have to sedate the horse to check or treat it?

Sedating is fairly common, but I don’t sedate every horse by any means. It’s probably something that’s done like 10 percent of the time. It depends on the temperament of the horse and what you are doing. If you are doing something that is very painful, even a really good horse you’ll have to use some kind of anesthetic or sedation.

Do you also perform surgical procedures on horses?

Yes. A lot of the procedures we’ll do at the owner’s place, but I do have a surgery table. I have a gas anesthesia machine for horses for long surgeries. For short surgeries we inject an anesthetic that will keep them down for a short time. But it depends a lot on what we’re doing. If it’s like surgery in a joint or abdominal surgery, then we want to put them on a surgery table and have them in as clean a place as we can.

Are horses fairly healthy and durable in comparison to other animals?

Actually they are not as durable probably as cattle. But they’re reasonable durable.

How often do horses need a check-up?

Usually I try to see my patients every three months. A lot of that is because they are kept for their athletic ability, they do develop problems. But a lot of those problems we can keep under control.

About how many patients do you have?

I think in my computer records I have about 2,000 horses, but that’s including other islands. I started my computer system in 1993, so that would include horses that have died and that kind of thing. I do a fair amount of work on the Neighbor Islands, and until a few years ago I used to go to Guam every three months, but I quit doing that. They didn’t have a veterinarian there who would do horses at all. They only had small animal veterinarians. But a young veterinarian started practice there who will do small animals and horses as well.

Do you do births and deliveries?

Yes, I’m board certified as a specialist in what’s called theriogenology, which is animal reproduction. So it would be the equivalent of an obstetrician and an gynecologist. So I do a lot of breeding work. Because we are in Hawaii, I do a lot of work with frozen semen and also with fresh cooled semen flown from the Mainland to breed horses with here.

Have there been any big medical advancements that have really helped you in your profession?

I would say the biggest one during the time I’ve been in practice has been ultrasound, especially for using in pregnancy diagnosis and finding out when a mare is ready to breed. And also if she has problems, finding out what those problems are. Before we just had to guess, basically. It’s been fantastic. Now you can pick up a pregnancy in a horse as early as 12 days after the mare has been breed. It’s been a tremendous advancement.

Can you describe a horses reproductive cycle?

In horses the female will only accept the male when she is in heat. And horses only have their really good regular cycle from about April 15 to Sept. 15. A mare carries the foal for 11 months.

Are you usually present for the birth?

Often I’m not because, unlike most of the other species, horses tend to give birth very quickly. That’s one of the dangers because even if it’s in a wrong position they will force it out. People try to watch them very closely when they are ready. About the only way that I can do them is what some people call inducing. But it’s really not inducing because the mare is already showing signs on her own, but we just give her a shot to speed it up so I can be there. That’s generally the only way I can be there because once the foal actually starts to come out, they can have it out in like 45 minutes. So it’s pretty hard to get there in time.

Is birthing dangerous for the mare?

Yes, it can be, but the percentage of the mare not surviving isn’t very high. One of the big problems we have, and one of the reasons ultra sound has helped us so much, is twins are a disaster for horses. The reason is the placenta where the nutrition is exchanged between the mother and the baby in humans is very efficient, because there’s only like one layer of tissue between the mother’s blood and the baby’s blood. In the horse, there are six layers of tissue that it has to diffuse through and it’s not a very efficient transfer, so if there are two babies in there, there’s not enough transfer. Usually one of them will die and the other will live for a while, but when they try to give birth the one that’s been dead and frozen in position will be a real disaster to deliver. And the remaining one doesn’t have enough nutrition either, so we’ll have to try to save it. So with the ultrasound we can find out really early if a mare is going to have twins. If we find out early enough we can go in rectally, locate it with ultra-sound and just grab and pinch one and that will kill one and the other one will mature. But you have to do that very early before day 15 or 16.

This information is provided as educational and is not intended as a substitute for consultation with a physician. For questions, consult your physician or veterinarian.

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