If your horse has colic, the most important thing for you to do is to quickly determine is if the problem is so serious that it requires surgery.
Fortunately, most horses that colic don’t need surgery. However, it has been shown that the survival rate for horses getting colic surgery goes down the longer the horse has clinical signs of colic; otherwise stated, if you horse has a colic, you need to find out if the problem requires surgery as quickly as possible, and you need to get him to the hospital as rapidly as possible. The percentage of horses that get colic surgery that are put to sleep on the surgery table because of the advanced nature of their disease is estimated to range from 8% to 24%. Getting a sick horse to the hospital quickly is really important.
There’s no single diagnostic test that is 100% accurate at telling you if your colicking horse needs surgery. However, certain tests appear to strongly predictive or the need for surgery. Let’s go over some of these tests, so you can make sure that the most important information is collected.
STRONGLY POSITIVE PREDICTORS (needs colic surgery)
1. Response to analgesia – If your horse has colic, and a potent pain-relieving drug, such as xylazine or detomodine doesn’t stop the colic pain, or if the pain starts back within a few minutes of receiving such drugs, it’s a sign that the colic is serious. On the other hand, if your horse responds to those drugs, and the pain does not return, that’s usually a wonderful sign that surgery isn’t needed. NOTE: This rule does not apply to flunixin (Banamine), which is not a potent pain-relieving drug.
2. Degree of pain – This one’s pretty simple. The more painful the horse, the more likely he has a problem that needs surgery. The horse that can’t be kept up on his feet is more likely to have a serious problem than the one that occasionally looks back at his side.
3. Abdominal fluid color and protein – This is a job for your veterinarian. There is fluid inside your horse’s abdomen; in a horse with a colic that require surgery, that fluid changes color, and the amount of protein increases. However, it is more likely that a horse with normal abdominal fluid does not need surgery than it is that a horse with abnormal fluid does need surgery. The procedure to collect abdominal fluid is called an
abdominocentesis; you can learn more about the procedure by CLICKING HERE.
4. Abdominal distension – If your horse’s abdomen is blown up like a balloon, it may indicate that he has a problem that needs surgery. Of course, the call is somewhat subjective, but the association has been made: twice.
5. Abdominal ultrasonography – This test is going to be most likely done at the hospital, but ultrasound of the abdomen, where the inside of the abdomen can actually be visualized, is a very good predictor of the need for surgery.
STRONGLY NEGATIVE PREDICTORS (probably doesn’t need colic surgery)
1. Elevated body temperature – Colic typically does not cause horses
to develop a fever. Fever is more consistent with things like infections or intestinal inflammation than it is with problems that need surgery. A horse’s normal body temperature is between 99.5 and 101 degrees, Fahrenheit.
PREDICTORS OF MORE LIMITED VALUE (although commonly done, and sometimes still useful)
1. Rectal examination – A rectal exam – where your veterinarian places an arm in the horse’s rectum, and feels around inside the abdomen – is certainly important, but it’s not a great predictor of colic. Occasionally, a specific diagnosis can be made (say, if your veterinarian feels a “stone,” gas, or a gut full of hard manure); however, since about 60% of the abdominal cavity cannot be reached by a normal human arm, rectal examination may be of limited value in some cases that need surgery.
2. Gut sounds – Roughly half of the horses that need colic surgery don’t have normal intestinal sounds (that’s something that your veterinarian can check). Of course, that many that half of the horses that ultimately need surgery have good gut sounds, as well as many of the horses that don’t need surgery. You’ll need to listen to your horse’s abdomen, as well as evaluate other factors.
3. Mucous membrane color – Looking at the color of the horse’s gums, and checking the time it takes for the blood to come back when light finger or thumb pessure is put on the gums (it should normally take no longer than two seconds), has limited value, unless the horse is verysick. If the colic goes on, and the horse starts to go into shock, changes in the capillary refill time and the character of the mucous membranes (from wet to dry) are significant.