By Clare Illingworth,
SPARK writer,
University of Guelph
Fixed…in one Fell swoop
A fresh approach to repairing a cleft palate lets a rare pony foal live

Less than a dozen Fell ponies—a rare breed imported from northern England in the 1940s—exist in Canada. So when one is born with a serious physical defect, alarm bells sound. Fortunately, in the case of two-day-old Fell filly June Bug, Ontario Veterinary College researchers were standing by. And, based on their experiences with her, they now have a new way to help other horses with similar problems.

June Bug came to OVC two summers ago suffering from a cleft palate, a tear to the soft palate located between the windpipe and throat. This soft palate, along with another structure in the throat called the epiglottis, come together to seal the air pipes when food is swallowed. The tear breaks this seal, allowing milk to enter the windpipe and then the lungs. This causes fatal pneumonia, essentially drowning the animal if left untreated. It’s
a highly unusual problem in horses, but is not thought to be inherited.

Owner Joan O’Brien of Sterling, Ontario, knew she had trouble on her hands. “June Bug was so small that our vet had to use dog-sized instruments to inspect her mouth,” says O’Brien.

Because of the severity of the problem, June Bug was referred to OVC, where
Dr. Ludovic Bouré took on her case.

Bouré took a new approach using human surgical instruments to repair the tear. The traditional surgical procedure involved breaking the jaw open and exposing the inner throat, which often results in infection of the jaw bones. “It was much too invasive,” he says. “Besides, the low chance of recovery means it’s hardly ever performed.”

For the surgery, Bouré used an endoscope—a small telescoped video camera—and guided it through the anesthetized filly’s mouth, allowing him to view the magnified site on a screen. Long instruments such as needle drivers and scissors used for human laparoscopic surgery were also entered through the mouth, to stitch the tear in the soft
palate. This allowed for a tight seal with the epiglottis.

June Bug spent two weeks at the hospital being treated for pneumonia. She was fed by a stomach tube to prevent movement of the soft palate during swallowing, which gave the stitches a chance to heal. Her progress was reassessed after two weeks and results
showed that only a small portion of the palate had re-torn, but not enough to
warrant another surgery.

The mare enjoyed a healthy recuperation and has grown into a fine pony. She is beginning light training in riding and driving, and owing to her impressive bloodlines she will join
O’Brien’s breeding program (she owns four of the eight Fell ponies in Canada)
and have a foal of her own in 2003. O’Brien hopes that June Bug will be central to her goal of improving the breed’s numbers and stock quality in Canada.

PHOTO BELOW: Fell pony foal June Bug recovers at Deerstones Farm, with mom
May Flower, after undergoing the first laproscopic surgery for a cleft palate.
Photo by Joan O'Brien

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Updated: October 2005.