Professor Mirja Ruohoniemi: Imaging exposes sand in the equine intestinal tract and hoof-related issues
Advances in diagnostic imaging have transformed the everyday operations of veterinary hospitals. According to a pioneer of imaging techniques, these advances do not mean that forging a connection with animal patients should be forgotten.

Vice-dean, veterinarian of the year, a teacher with multiple awards to her name, a developer of veterinary diagnostic imaging. Mirja Ruohoniemi, a professor of veterinary diagnostic imaging at the University of Helsinki, has many titles.

Closest to her heart, however, is the development of education.

“As a vice-dean, I have been charged with the development of teaching. In recent years, I have concentrated on that more than actually teaching,” Ruohoniemi explains.

Opportunities for treating veterinary patients are also in short supply, even though that was what originally attracted Ruohoniemi to the field.

“Horse limbs have always been an interest of mine. They are the most sensitive part of a horse and difficult to examine. A horse may have a sore leg, but often we are unable to find the reason.”

Ruohoniemi wrote her doctoral dissertation on the ossification of hoof cartilages in Finnhorse, gaining new data through the use of computer-aided tomography and magnetic resonance imaging.

Indeed, Ruohoniemi can be described as a pioneer of diagnostic imaging. At the turn of the millennium, she completed a certificate in diagnostic imaging in the United Kingdom due to the absence of relevant postgraduate education in Finland.

“A student of mine once asked whether I’m fond of monochrome images, since we always studied those in my courses.”

However, imaging may expose things otherwise invisible to the human eye. Sand accumulated in the equine digestive system is one such example. Even though it is possible to detect large concentrations of sand through ultrasonic imaging, only x-rays will reveal the actual amount of sand in the intestinal tract of a horse. For example, Finnhorse seem to be susceptible to accruing a lot of sand in their intestinal tract, at worst to a life-threatening extent.

At the moment, Ruohoniemi is supervising a doctoral dissertation that aims to investigate the reasons underlying such accrual of sand. This is another area where imaging plays an important role.

I always tell students to feel the patient and compare what they sense to the images. Imaging is revealing, but it does not tell us everything.

Deploying new MRI scanners at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital is also a big challenge. The new scanners are state of the art. The device intended for the Equine Hospital makes it possible to examine the hoofs of horses while they are standing.

“Actually, the only thing we are still missing is an examination table for CT scanning that could bear the weight of a full-grown horse,” says Ruohoniemi.

However, imaging must never replace physical contact, she emphasises.

“I always tell students to feel the patient and compare what they sense to the images. Imaging is revealing, but it does not tell us everything.”