The Risk of Rectal Palpation in Horses

Date Published: 02/04/2019

Rectal palpation is a common diagnostic technique used by veterinarians for many different conditions in horses, including diagnosing the cause of a colic.  The most common use of rectal palpation is to check brood mares to determine the correct time to breed, if the mare is pregnant, and to monitor the pregnancy.  Rectal palpation in brood mares is required to be performed two or three or more times before breeding in some mares, and also after breeding in some that have difficulty becoming pregnant.  So you can see this is a common procedure performed by veterinarians daily, and because it is so common, many owners forget that there is a risk of possibly tearing the rectum. 

Rectal tears are very serious and can even be deadly in cases of a complete tear.  There are stages from minor tears that just involve the mucosa only all the way to a complete tear that exposes the abdominal cavity to feces.  Minor tears can usually be treated with just laxatives while tears through the rectum that contaminate the abdomen with feces are usually deadly.  The important thing to realize is that although the condition is common, there is potential risk and your veterinarian is not the cause of these tears in most cases.  Sometimes they just happen and if so, referral to a boarded equine specialist is recommended.  Rectal tears usually occur in brood mares because they undergo the procedure so often, which leads to irritation of the rectal lining.  If your vet believes a rectal tear has occurred, it’s critical to pack the rectum with a cotton-filled rectal sleeve and get to a specialist. It is important to realize that rectal palpation in horses is necessary, but the procedure does have some risk associated with it.

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