Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine will pursue 10 new research projects with support from the school’s Companion Animal Fund Grant Program. In 2022, the program distributed over $137,000 in grants to studies exploring a wide range of topics, from the absorption of antibiotics in a commonly kept freshwater turtle species to the disease pathology of laryngeal paralysis in dogs to improving anesthesia in horses.
LaTasha Crawford, assistant professor at the School of Veterinary Medicine with expertise in neuroscience, leads one of the studies selected through the grant program and funded by the Equine Health Fund. Broadly, her research aims to understand how different diseases impact the senses of touch and pain. In collaboration with the Colorado State University (CSU) College of Veterinary Medicine, the research project will examine a unique sensory neuron inflammation in horses.
CSU faculty approached Crawford, aware of her lab’s investigations of nerve and pain injuries, to team up to get a better understanding of a disease encountered in equine patients. Beginning about eight years ago, several horses presented to CSU’s veterinary medical teaching hospital with behavioral problems. The horses exhibited dangerous behaviors when ridden or touched in a certain way.
“It turned out to be neck and back pain,” Crawford says. “Unfortunately, a lot of the medications used didn’t work in remedying the problem, so the owners chose to euthanize the horses.”
Upon autopsy of these horses, pathologists couldn’t identify a clear cause of the pain until they looked in depth at the sensory neurons, which sense pain. These neurons, known as the sensory ganglia, are found in clusters all along either side of the spine. Ganglia are not routinely checked in autopsies. Researchers discovered the pain was associated with the disease “ganglionitis,” which targets sensory nerve cells.
“It wasn’t until they started to look at these structures that they began to understand the pain,” Crawford says.
This research will shed light on an often overlooked and unknown area of the nervous system – findings that could benefit both veterinary and human medicine.
“There is an unmet clinical need for understanding more about what causes pain. Studies like this will help us understand ways we can improve, treat and maybe even prevent pain.”
“We don’t know as much about sensory ganglia as we should,” Crawford says. “We know there is pain associated with the syndrome of ganglionitis and inflammation affects the ganglia. But we don’t have a good sense of what that means for the patient.”
By better understanding where these horses’ pain originated and what causes the disease, researchers and clinicians can better target treatment, find potential therapies and avoid euthanasia. Even more so, this research sheds light on pain as a whole – both animal and human.
“We are trying to find connections from what we see in tissues and in clinical diagnostics to pain in the patient,” Crawford explains. “There is a lot of chronic pain people endure without good treatment.”
“There is an unmet clinical need for understanding more about what causes pain,” she continues. “Studies like this will help us understand ways we can improve, treat and maybe even prevent pain.”
The Companion Animal Grant Fund Program aims to support research improving and enhancing the care of any companion animal. The program is funded by donations from veterinary medical clinics with ties to the school and individual donors. Donations to the Companion Animal Fund, Feline Health Fund, Equine Health Fund, and other gifts support the Companion Animal Fund Grant Program.