Morgan Murphy

Colic Surgery: Is it a Realistic Option?

Your worst fear has been confirmed: Your horse has colic and there are limited options for dealing with the next steps.

Colic is the number one cause of death in horses, understandably, it is also one of the most confusing. Recognising the signs of colic early on and having a strategy in place can have a significant impact on your horse's welfare. Arming yourself with as much knowledge as possible is critical to minimizing the potential panic and stress on discovering your horse may have colic.

For surgery to take place, the veterinary clinic must have access to specialized equipment^

Colic in Horses 101:

Basically, colic means abdominal pain: it is a symptom indicating a problem with the abdomen, not a disease in itself. Causes can include anything from gastrointestinal tract issues to peritonitis. (Inflammation of the peritoneum, the thin tissue that lines the inner wall of the abdomen and covers most of the abdominal organs meaning the stomach, small intestine, caecum and the colon.) The design of the horse's digestive tract makes it somewhat prone to numerous problems! Horses cannot vomit, are sensitive to changing bacteria levels in their food and are more prone to intestinal blockage than most mammals.

Symptoms of gastrointestinal distress include: Not eating, pacing, belly nipping and gazing, stamping, sweating, rolling, getting up and down repeatedly and lip curling. The majority of cases of colic can be treated medically, without surgery. However, some impaction colic cases may require surgical intervention. Circumstances that typically require surgery include:

- Intestinal Lipomas: where the GI tract wraps round benign fatty tumors
- Torsion: Twisting of the colon
- Intestine intussusception: Where the intestine inverts on itself
- Any strangulated segment of intestine where blood supply is lost

When blood supply is lost to any of the intestinal tissue, the tissue will start to die, allowing toxins to enter the bloodstream. In these cases, surgery is required to remove any damaged part of the intestines and unwind any torsion. Colic surgery is a huge undertaking for any owner and horse. Where large areas of the gut are involved, the horse may deteriorate rapidly, however if only a small amount of the gut is damaged, you may have a few hours to make a decision, transport the horse and start operating. Unfortunately, in many cases of surgical colic, the horse does not make it to the operating table in time.

Is Colic Surgery a Genuine Option in My Case?

While your veterinarian will advise you on options, the final decision rests with you. For this reason, it's wise to consider your feelings about pursuing colic surgery before an actual need arises. Don't assume that your veterinarian is setup for colic surgery. Surgery requires a large team of specialists and specialized facilities featuring large padded rooms and specialty medical equipment. Find out if there's a surgical center near you. If you should ever find yourself in the position of actually needing to take a horse for surgery, call your insurance company. Most offer 24 hour customer support, so make sure they're fully advised on your horse's condition, your vet's advice and your plans. Failure to do might result in denial of coverage*.

The next thing you should consider is cost. Equine colic surgery costs an average of between $7,500 and $12,000. Equine insurance covers, on average, between 70-100% of the cost, after your deductible**. But, the costs may not stop there. There me be a prolonged hospital stay, post surgery. And, your horse may require ongoing monitoring and rehabilitation after that. The horse will need approximately 4 months of stall rest and should not recommence working until at least 6 months after surgery.

Survival Rates For Equine Colic Surgery Patients

There are a number of factors that influence equine colic surgery survival rates: Horse's age, colic stage at diagnosis, colic severity and drug/anaesthetic tolerances. The Liverpool University Hospital saw approximately 80% of colic patients return home, post surgery. Surgeries performed to eliminate non-strangulating obstructions: enteroliths, impactions, etc., have a relatively high success rate. Colic caused by small intestine strangulation has the most questionable prognosis.

Early stage recognition of gastrointestinal issues combined with advanced surgical capabilities means more horses have access to life saving colic surgery. But, should the need arise, will you be able to react quickly and in your own best interests? By studying your options and having a plan in place, you are truly doing your part as a mindful horse owner. Taking these steps could make a dramatic difference in your horse's destiny.

* Be sure to discuss notification policies and requirements with your equine insurance specialist

** Insurance coverage varies by policy. Talk to your equine insurance specialist about policy provisions regarding colic surgery coverage.


^ Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons