Twenty-two years ago, my teenage daughter was given a two-year-old Quarter Horse gelding by a woman who was re-homing him. He was the exact horse she had been wanting, from his age, to his bloodlines, even to his color. She thought she’d died and gone to heaven. Little did we know that her “free” horse would cost us $2,500 within a week of bringing him home.
After our veterinarian had arrived in the middle of the night to treat her very distressed horse who was suffering a severe bout of colic, he told us that the horse was “too far gone” and there was nothing further he could do.
He did give us the name and number for the Los Colinas Colic Surgery Center in Irving, Texas. He said the prognosis was bad and that we shouldn’t expect the horse to survive the eighteen miles to the center. Our other option was to euthanize him. The outlook was bleak for the horse, but even bleaker for my daughter if her horse died. We had to try.
Fortunately for us, the amazing veterinarians were able to help our horse, and after surgery, many weeks of stall rest and a very slow recovery, he recuperated and became the horse she’d always wanted. Not every horse is so lucky (not to mention the teenager who loved him).
That was more than twenty years ago.
So what’s the prognosis today?
Understanding colic has come a long way since my daughter was a teenager. But the pain and distress that both the horse and its owners experience has not changed. Nor have the reasons for colic.
Colic is defined as “abdominal pain, but it is a clinical sign rather than a diagnosis. The term colic can encompass all forms of gastrointestinal conditions which cause pain as well as other causes of abdominal pain not involving the gastrointestinal tract.”
Colic that requires surgery is often due to a mechanical problem inside the horse’s gut. For instance, colic can result from:
- A large colon volvulus—a twist in the large intestine
- A pedunculated lipoma—strangulation of the small intestine by a fatty tumor on a cord
- An impaction of the large colon, most commonly caused by feed or sand.
- A blockage in the small colon.
- And many other causes.
Horse owners and veterinarians both face difficulties making the decision to treat a horse surgically for colic, not only because of expense. Questions about postoperative performance are a major concern, too.
However, there is good news for those who have to face this heart-rending decision today. A recently published study paid for by the Morris Animal Foundation demonstrates that the outcome for both horse and owner are overwhelmingly positive.
The study, published in the journal Acta Veterinaria Scandinavica, found that of the 236 horses in the study that underwent surgery for colic, the ones that survived did very well. Those that returned to their previous activity accounted for 83.7% and 78.5% regained their pre-surgical level of performance or exceeded it.
Neither the age of the horse nor the location of the problem had any significant effect on the probability of returning to their disciplines. Even surgical site infections, incisional hernias and recovery time had little ramification.
What did the owners think?
A high level (96.3%) of owners were happy with their veterinarians and 98.5% said the recovery after the surgery was satisfactory or better.
What would you decide?
Here are some questions to take into consideration when you are facing colic surgery for your horse. Ask:
- What is wrong with my horse?
- How complicated is the surgery?
- If all goes well, what is the prognosis?
- What is the likelihood that this will recur?
- What are the risks involved with anesthesia?
- How much will it cost?
- Does my equine insurance cover the surgery?
- Does my horse’s age or other issues significantly affect his probable prognosis?
What to do right now:
The best advice is to prepare for the possibility of colic before it happens, while you are calm and clear-thinking. Having to make a decision when you are facing a crisis is always more difficult. Have a plan for each of your horses should colic occur.
Do some research and know as much as you can about the costs, risks and benefits of colic surgery.
Look into equine insurance, too. Both insurance for surgery as well as mortality insurance are good ideas. Do it now, before you have to face the decision in the midst of an emergency.
By Susannah Wollman