Department of Equine and Small Animal Medicine

Record year for doctoral dissertations

In 2015, the research activities of the Department of Equine and Small Animal Medicine achieved record-breaking results. Investment in systematically organised doctoral education in clinical veterinary medicine paid off. That year, a total of eight doctoral degrees were awarded. Of these eight, three received funding from foundations to continue their research for another year. The highlight of the research-intensive year was the solemn conferment of doctoral degrees. Some of the Department’s new doctoral graduates completed their degree in time to celebrate their achievement in this ceremony. The number of reviewed articles published in international journals remained the same as in previous years, but lower than last year’s highest-ever number. While most of the published articles appeared in prestigious veterinary journals, significant cross-disciplinary research results were also published in scientific journals in other fields.

The Department coordinates the Doctoral Programme in Clinical Veterinary Medicine. Responsibility for the administrative management of the programme, in addition to all their other duties, has brought researchers in both clinical departments (i.e., the Department of Equine and Small Animal Medicine and the Department of Production Animal Medicine) closer together.

The Department’s researchers compiled a presentation of canine research at the University of Helsinki for the stakeholder meeting held in the autumn to celebrate the 70th anniversary of veterinary teaching in Finland. The Department’s canine researchers form the largest and most versatile canine research unit in Finland. The impactpact of the Department’s canine research is highlighted by the Department’s cooperation with Professor Hannes Lohi’s canine genetic research group to investigate the genetic background of several animal diseases.

The pulmonary research group, operating within the small animal internal medicine unit, produced three doctoral dissertations under Dr Minna Rajamäki’s supervision. The dissertations examined idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF). LVM Liisa Lilja-Maula’s research revealed new information on the prognosis of the illness and the life expectancy of diseased dogs as well as the proteins contributing to the pathophysiology of the disease and its similarities to human pulmonary fibrosis. The histopathological features of the disease presented in LVM Henna Laurila’s research revealed long-awaited information about the histopathological resemblance of the disease in humans and dogs. Bronchoalveolar lavage also showed potential fibrosis biomarkers. The results obtained by Marika Melamies, LVM, about the use of budesonide, an inhaled corticosteroid, in the treatment of canine respiratory diseases, provide encouraging information for further research on a new form of treatment.

The pulmonary research group also developed a six-minute walking test for dogs. This walking test that measures submaximal exercise tolerance will be used in the selection of individuals for breeding in some short-muzzled breeds. Short-muzzled dogs suffer from numerous respiratory problems of varying degrees that can be alleviated by selecting individuals for breeding with a higher tolerance for exercise.

Lung Insight research group members.

Lung Insight research group members.

The Petbone research group led by Professor Outi Vapaavuori produced one doctoral dissertation. Physiotherapist Heli Hyytiäinen, MSc, developed a test battery known as the FSCI (Finnish Canine Stifle Index) for determining the functionality of dogs with stifle dysfunction. The test battery offers a reliable tool to evaluate the outcome of rehabilitation in dogs with stifle dysfunction. Heli Hyytiäinen can be regarded as a pioneering developer of veterinary rehabilitation, as only five other dissertations in the field of veterinary physiotherapy in the world have preceded hers.

The research results of Professor Outi Vainio’s CogniDog project repeatedly attract world-wide attention from both veterinary scientists and dog lovers. In their numerous media appearances, the researchers have shed light on the cognitive abilities of dogs to process visual information. The ScienceDaily news website presented the findings of doctoral student Heidi Törnqvist, which demonstrate that when evaluating social situations, dogs prefer humans and dogs who communicate with each other.

Pharmacological and toxicological studies on alpha-2 drugs continued. MK-467 was shown to attenuate the harmful side effects of alpha-2 sedatives on blood circulation. Alpha-2 sedatives are the most commonly used substances in veterinary anaesthesia. The reduction or elimination of side effects with the new drug significantly improves patient safety. A patent is currently pending on the drug under investigation. In late 2015, a member of the research team, Veterinarian Flavia Restitutti, defended her doctoral dissertation in a public examination. Her research contributed to the invention leading to the patent application.

The research conducted at the Clinical Research Laboratory, headed by Dr Merja Rantala, is closely connected to the laboratory’s regular operations. The laboratory was probably the first in the world to isolate in a sample from a dog’s ear the strain of E.coli that produces NDM 5 metallo-beta-lactamase. This news was covered extensively in the Finnish media. Research on the bacteria continues in collaboration with the National Institute for Health and Welfare and the Finnish Food Safety Authority Evira. The laboratory carried out a research project together with the Guide Dog School of the Finnish Federation of the Visually Impaired to investigate the occurrence and risk factors of MRSP and MRSA bacteria in guide dogs. The results led to the systematic MRSP screening of dogs used in breeding and of dogs belonging to risk groups in an effort to prevent the spread of resistant bacteria through guide dogs. The research project with the Guide Dog School is part of the research leading to LVM Thomas Grönthal’s doctoral dissertation on the epidemiology of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus pseudintermedius in Finland.

The laboratory has established its position as a promoter of the professional competence of veterinarians in the field of veterinary clinical microbiology. The laboratory is contacted almost daily about sample taking, analysis of results, selection of antibiotics and the prevention of infections. The laboratory’s work on antimicrobial resistance monitoring and the consumption of antimicrobial agents was published in early 2015 in collaboration with the Finnish Food Safety Authority Evira in the publication entitled FinresVet.

Development of teaching and intense cooperation on campus and within the Faculty

Undergraduate study modules were carried out as planned for third-, fourth- and fifth-year students. The reformed system of clinical rotation was introduced at the beginning of the autumn term. In this reform, optional practical training was given greater weight, and studies in pathology were added to the curriculum to support clinical diagnostics. Opportunities for campus cooperation in Viikki were charted, and collaboration was intensified in the teaching of pharmacy and veterinary pharmacology and toxicology.

The Department’s summer clinics, set up to support the writing of Licentiate theses, have continued successfully for several years under Dr Anna Hielm-Björkman. In 2015, the Department of Veterinary Biosciences and the Department of Production Animal Medicine, along with their coordinators, joined the summer clinic. The clinic’s activities will continue in their more extensive form, but under the name ‘Thesis Workshop’. Two follow-up seminars will be organised to support the completion of Licentiate theses. Such cooperation improves time management in the supervision of theses, as most Licentiate theses are completed in the clinical departments.

Animal week at Think Corner

The Department’s teachers and researchers participated actively in the annual Animal Week organised at the University’s Think Corner. Because people take great interest in animals, Think Corner was packed full at times. The audience received information about topics such as dogs’ abilities to help in cancer diagnostics, joint problems in dogs, breeding and cognitive processes in dogs. Equine researchers focused on the reasons for limping and new information on laminitis. Clinical microbiologists shared their knowledge about infectious diseases in pets and the reduced effectiveness of antibiotics in the treatment of infections.

Investment in canine research and other future prospects

The field-specific evaluations published in 2014 by the Academy of Finland determined that research in veterinary medicine had the greatest scientific impact when compared to equivalent international fields of research. The proven high-quality veterinary research at our Faculty provides inspiring prospects for the future. Animals, especially dogs living in our homes, are known to promote human wellbeing; versatile research focusing on our companions meets social needs.

Bringing the canine research conducted at the University of Helsinki together under one unit furthers research cooperation and supports the goal of developing this unit into a cutting-edge, innovative research unit of international standing. Canine science has in recent years emerged as an esteemed field to complement the more traditional disciplines. An important partner is the Finnish Kennel Club, with whom the University has set up the joint Canine Health Research Fund. The Canine Health Research Fund presented its first grants to canine researchers of the University of Helsinki at the Koira 2014 dog event of the Kennel Club. These grants have enabled our scientists to take their field one step further. Canine research at our Department has every opportunity to stay at the top scientifically while also promoting the health and wellbeing of both dogs and humans.

The Faculty’s tightening finances are reflected in the cost-cutting targeted at the recruitment of replacements. For a long time now, we have been forced to manage with a smaller staff. Because teaching staff have found employment elsewhere during the past year, the number of qualified teachers and researchers has decreased. In clinical veterinary medicine, the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine plays an important role in training professionally competent and academically qualified teachers. Unfortunately, our efforts to recruit international experts in clinical veterinary medicine to supplement our dwindling resources have failed. The clinical work and interaction with patients’ owners in a foreign language add to the demands of the work and affect job satisfaction. Adequate resources for the clinical fields in our Faculty could alleviate the inevitable decline in clinical research and teaching.

Satu Sankari
Head of the Department of Equine and Small Animal Medicine
Faculty of Veterinary Medicine
University of Helsinki