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Colic Emergencies

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The equine veterinarians at the UF Large Animal Hospital provide advanced emergency colic care 24/7 to sick horses and large animals from the Gainesville, Ocala, Jacksonville and surrounding areas. Our board-certified equine veterinarians, highly trained staff and purpose-built facilities can handle any surgical or medical colic case, and will work with you to provide the best possible outcome for your horse.

Equine Colic Care at The University of Florida

Board certified large animal surgeons and anesthesiologists and highly trained staff care for a horse post-colic surgery at UF

Colic is a cruel and devastating disease that is second to old age as the leading cause of death in horses older than 30 days. The University of Florida has developed a program aimed at improving survival after colic surgery under the leadership of Dr. David Freeman. This program has been shown to reduce postoperative complications, increase short-term survival, increase long-term survival, and improve the long-term quality of life after colic surgery. This successful approach has even increased long-term survival after small intestinal surgery to several times longer than reported previously, and surgery in this segment is the most challenging and least successful type of colic surgery. Some horses may require a second surgery shortly after the first and even these can have a better long-term survival than previously reported.

Surgical Veterinary Colic Care

Different types of colic can have different outcomes after surgery. The worst type is any colic in which the intestine has become strangulated and lost its blood supply. Examples are twists of the intestine or intestinal incarceration in a natural body opening (inguinal hernia, epiploic foramen). In these cases, the intestine will die slowly and release toxins into the circulation that can make the horse very sick and eventually succumb. These are the horses that need the most prompt attention and require the most complicated surgery, usually because the affected intestine needs to be removed. Two other types of colic are less severe and they are impaction colics (feed impaction, sand impaction, enteroliths, foreign bodies) and displacements of the large colon. These can also cause considerable pain and require prompt attention, but rarely does intestine have to be removed in affected horses.

Colic Care at The University of Florida

The first step in successful surgical management of colic in horses is prompt referral of a potential surgical candidate to a hospital where surgery can be performed before irreversible changes have occurred. The other important factor in determining outcome is the surgical procedure, aided by state-of-the-art diagnostic techniques and anesthetic methods. At the University of Florida, horses are anesthetized under the supervision of board-certified anesthesiologists who are always available to help with difficult cases. Many horses with colic are notoriously poor candidates for general anesthesia and may require advanced anesthetic techniques to help them survive surgery and the anesthetic recovery period.

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Colic

The University of Florida team emphasizes the importance of surgical treatment over drugs to reduce common postoperative complications. In replacing intensive pharmacological management of horses after colic surgery with a more heavy emphasis on the surgical procedure, horses can start eating shortly after surgery, and this will hasten return of normal gastrointestinal function. This is critical to the success of the surgery, because return of normal gastrointestinal function reduces the risk of most complications, such as post-operative intestinal paralysis (ileus). This approach will reduce the cost of post-operative treatment and shorten hospitalization so horses can return more quickly to the owner’s care. Many horses benefit from returning to their home environment where familiar surroundings could hasten recovery.

The best example of how the University of Florida has improved survival after colic surgery is through the development of an accurate system to decide when strangulated small intestine can be removed or left in the horse. When this system has prevented removal of small intestine, horses have had better short-term and long-term survival rates and lower complication rates than horses that have had small intestine removed. This system is based on certain criteria that the surgeon can judge during surgery and does not require any special equipment.

The Future of Colic for Horses

Colic surgery will always be a challenge. There are many opportunities for improvement in the way colic surgery is performed, and applying these to more critical cases will improve the outcome after surgery. In the past, there was a general reluctance to doing colic surgery because of the high failure rate. This has changed, and horses have returned to the highest level of athletic endeavor after colic surgery. However, we all need to be aware of the steps that count the most toward a successful outcome. Prompt referral is critical. Delays caused by continued therapy at home or at a hospital where the surgery cannot be performed might be well-intentioned, but can lead to a high failure rate. An approach to surgery that emphasizes the role of costly postoperative drugs over the role of surgery and anesthesia is doomed for failure.

Read the UF Large Animal Hospital’s post-operative surgical colic care information.

When colic in your horse develops

  • Remove food and water from your horse’s stall.
  • Call your veterinarian immediately. Colic can be treated either medically or surgically.
  • If it is safe, walk your horse for fifteen minute intervals.
  • Do not give Banamine (flunixin meglumine) in the muscle. Your veterinarian can give it in the vein.

Help prevent colic in your horse

  • Design a deworming program with your veterinarian. Current guidelines for parasite control are much different than previously because of drug resistance.
  • Do not keep your horse in a stall for extended periods of time or in a pasture with sand if possible.
  • Feed good-quality roughage at all times and feed concentrates at a minimum.
  • Changes in diet, exercise, and general management should be avoided as much as possible.

Prepare for equine colic

  • Know your horse’s habits so you can spot when something is wrong.
  • Keep your emergency veterinarian’s contact information on hand.
  • Make sure you have a safe vehicle and trailer to transport your horse.
  • Have money saved, credit available, or colic insurance in case colic must be treated by a veterinarian. Know your financial limits, what you’re willing to do, how much time you have for at-home care, and who can help if you need it.

Clinical signs of colic in horses

  • Poor appetite
  • Decreased manure production
  • Lip curling
  • Depression
  • Lying down more than usual
  • Pawing
  • Stretching out

  • Flank watching
  • Teeth grinding
  • Bloated abdomen
  • Sweating
  • Kicking at the abdomen
  • Rolling
  • Repeatedly getting up and down