Risks of Colic Surgery in Horses

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By Mark Andrews

Despite advances in anaesthesia and surgical techniques, there is still a significant risk associated with equine colic surgery. This major surgical procedure carries inherent risks such as anaesthetic complications, postoperative infections, and failure of the surgical site to heal properly.

In addition, colic surgery is usually performed under emergency conditions when the horse’s health is already compromised.  

Even with successful surgery, horses with colic will likely require intensive care and monitoring in the postoperative period, which can be costly and time-consuming. Horse owners must be aware of the risks and have a frank discussion with their veterinarian about the potential outcomes and prognosis. Early intervention and prompt surgical treatment can improve the chances of a positive outcome but do not guarantee success. 

Related: An Alternative Approach to Colic Operations

To better assess the risk factors for colic surgery, researchers in Italy reviewed records of horses subjected to colic surgery in three referral centres between 2018 and 2021.

In a study published in the journal Animals, Alessandro Spadari and his colleagues from the Veterinary Teaching Hospitals at the Universities of Bologna, Perugia, and Turin, examined data from 451 horses that underwent colic surgery. They found that the short-term survival rate for all horses that underwent surgery was 68.5 percent, and for those that recovered from both the surgery and anaesthesia, survival rate was 80 percent. 

The study identified several potential risk factors that could affect the outcome of the surgery, including age, body condition score (BCS), packed cell volume (PCV), total plasma protein (TPP) before and after surgery, amount of reflux, type of disease, type of lesion, duration of surgery, surgeon’s experience, and the amount of intra- and postoperative fluids administered.

Through multivariate analysis, the researchers found that PCV at arrival, TPP after surgery, and BCS had the highest predictive power for short-term survival after colic surgery. 

Related: 8 Steps to Prevent Colic as Horses Transition to Hay

Horses with a body condition score (BCS) of less than four out of nine were found to have a higher risk of a negative outcome. Also, horses that arrived at the referral centre with a PCV greater than 50 percent and TPP levels below 5.7 or above 7.4 had a poorer prognosis than horses with other values.

The type of lesion also played a significant role in the outcome, with horses diagnosed with large colon volvulus, pedunculated lipoma, and small intestinal volvulus having the worst prognosis. 

The authors of the study suggest that their findings may aid surgeons in making informed decisions and communicating the risks to referring veterinarians and horse owners. They recommend conducting additional studies to validate the impact of the predictive indices on short-term survival.

For more details, see Short-Term Survival and Postoperative Complications Rates in Horses Undergoing Colic Surgery: A Multicentre Study in the Animals

Related: Rehabilitation for Horses and Return to Performance after Colic Surgery

Related: Equine Colic - Signs, Symptoms, Treatment

Published with the kind permission of Mark Andrews, Equine Science Update

Photo: Dreamstime/Mariya Shustova