Thermal imaging as a diagnostic tool

A thermal scan of Freedom's head
This is a thermal scan of Freedom's head. Lighter areas indicate "hotter" areas. You can see that the area where his cribbing strap goes is lighter.

Thermal imaging is a diagnostic tool that can help you find injuries or stressed areas on your horse —  sometimes weeks before you can see the problems with your own eyes.

Using a thermal imaging camera, a vet can measure the surface heat patterns on the body of your horse and identify “hot spots” (which appear lighter in the photo) by mapping skin surface temperature in response to changes in blood flow. Thermal imaging systems are incredibly sensitive: they can detect temperature differences of less than 0.05 degrees Centigrade

Thermal imaging can be used help find injuries or diseases that cause inflammation, such as damage from an ill-fitting saddle, suspensory injuries, tendon injuries, ringbone, kissing spine, hoof abscesses, etc.,  or lack of circulation, which can be an indicator of nerve damage or muscle atrophy. It’s a non-invasive tool — the images are taken from several feet away from your horse — you get instant feedback and it’s portable. It is one of the only cost effective ways to get whole body imaging.

The problem is finding a vet who has a thermal imaging camera. Although it’s been around for more than 40 years, it was initially used primarily for racehorses and other performance horses rather than for your average riding horse. At the 1996 Olympics, it was the most diagnostic tool most frequently requested by the equestrian teams.

I’ve never had a vet who offered the service before so I jumped at the chance to have Freedom used as a thermal model when my veterinarian friend, Carol, brought a colleague over to the barn with his camera. Much thanks to Ed Leonard, DVM, for letting us “see” Freedom in a whole new way!

Because Freedom has Lyme disease and has had some overall body soreness I wanted to see if there were any hot spots that might indicate an underlying problem. Specifically I wanted to see if the slight lameness I’ve felt is the result of a muscle problem.

Dr. Leonard explained that in a healthy horse you will see symmetry in the thermal images on both sides of the horse. He also mentioned that dirt and water show up as darker spots so starting with a clean horse, and preferably one without a heavy winter coat, gives you the best results.

Turning a thermal camera on your horse can give you pause. What if we found a problem that I didn’t know existed? I suppose it’s always good to know what’s bothering your horse even if it hasn’t become an active issue.

Luckily, in Freedom’s case, there was nothing unexpected that showed up. He had some “hot spots” where his cribbing collar sits and also where his girth goes. That wasn’t a big surprise because he’s always very sensitive there. His back, neck, shoulders and hind end were fine. That’s good news as it’s where he’s been the most sensitive since being diagnosed with Lyme. I forgot to ask for a thermal image of his right hind hoof — I would have liked to know if the slight lameness I felt was caused by bruising, but it completely slipped my mind.

Still, it’s nice to know what isn’t inflamed. When my vet had examined Freedom (prior to the Lyme diagnosis) she mentioned some of the other things that would cause the soreness that I was feeling: kissing spines and a muscle injury were two. Now I can rule those out.

Whole body thermal scan
Here you can see a whole body thermal scan of Willow. She showed no hot spots other than those created by a bit of mud.

We also took thermal scans of my friend Carol’s horse, Willow. Here you see a whole body scan. With an animal as large as a horse there are very few tools that give you this type of holistic view — this view, and the one of Freedom’s head, were also the only ones that were immediately recognizable as being a horse.

Willow’s “hot spots” were mostly due to mud. It happened to be a day when most of our pasture was under water.

In addition to the thermal camera, Dr. Leonard also brought a laser that can be used to stimulate acupuncture points. Another very interesting tool . . . but more on that another day.

Dr. Leonard has offered to answer any questions that you might have about thermal imaging so send ’em my way!

2 thoughts on “Thermal imaging as a diagnostic tool

  1. So interesting! I haven’t seen these. What a great pre-purchase tool they would make on a horse you are interested in buying; no secrets can be hidden from this tool (at least the sore/ hot spots!).


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