Bob Judd, DVM, DABVP (Equine Medicine), DABVP (Canine and Feline Practice)
Colic is likely the most common health condition seen in horses. But should you treat your horse at home, or will your veterinarian recommend surgery?
About 90% of colic cases resolve with no treatment or with medical care only, and about 10% require surgery. The problem is, it’s hard to know at the initial exam if the case of colic your horse seems to be going through is mild or will need surgery. Some horses can be very painful and respond to medical treatment while others just seem depressed but may have a surgical lesion (damage to tissue caused by colic or other condition).
This is the reason for contacting your veterinarian at the early signs of colic. If you have already given your horse multiple pain killers prior to your veterinarian’s arrival, you may be delaying surgery that could result in more intestinal damage and decrease the chance of survival.
For example, if you give your horse a pain killer to control pain and the horse needs surgery, the horse may respond short-term and make you think everything is fine, giving more time for the intestine to be damaged prior to surgery.
Most veterinarians will refer surgical cases to a referral center that performs colic surgery. In many cases, the surgical center may be hours away, so a long trailer ride is required. For this reason, your veterinarian must try to predict if your horse may need surgery early on. If your veterinarian waits until they are sure a horse needs surgery, some horses may not survive the trip.
The most important sign that indicates surgery may be required is uncontrollable pain. If pain medication is only effective for a short period, surgery will likely be required. If your veterinarian continues to drain large volumes of fluid off the horse’s stomach, surgical referral should be considered. Another reason for referral is an increased heart rate even with pain medication or finding a twist in the intestine during the physical exam.