Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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The Case of the Colicky Pony

Pet Column for the week of April 9, 2007

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Brooke Nitzkin
Information Specialist

Animal owners tend to know their animals. When something isn't right, they can tell. So when an owner noticed that her 17-year-old pony had a poor appetite, showed signs of abdominal pain, and was just not acting like his usual active self, she called the equine medical staff at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, Ill.

Despite a battery of tests, the diagnosis wasn't clear in this case until after some watching and waiting. Luckily, what turned out to be a "sticky" situation was expertly handled and the pony went home well again. Following is a recap of the events in the "Case of the Colicky Pony."

Like all animal patients at the teaching hospital, the pony received a physical examination by a veterinarian when he first arrived. The pony seemed bright, alert, and responsive to stimulus. His temperature was 99.2 degrees F, which is roughly normal (the range is 99.5 degrees F to 100.5 degrees F). His heart rate and respiration rate were slightly elevated (48 beats per minute and 33 breaths per minute, respectively). A slightly elevated heart rate and respiration rate can indicate several things, one of which is pain.

His intestinal sounds were slightly decreased. (Horses' guts churn a lot to digest the cellulose-laden grass and hay they consume, so a slowed gut rate may indicate a problem.)

The next step was to perform diagnostic tests. The pony was given a rectal examination to rule out, among other things, blockage or twisting of the intestines. A tube was inserted through the pony's nose and into his stomach to check whether fluid, called reflux, was in the stomach, which could indicate gastrointestinal obstructions. There was no fluid.

Abdominocentesis was performed, meaning a needle was inserted into the belly to check for free fluid. Fluid found there can be analyzed for protein content, cell type, and the presence of bacteria to diagnose infection, cancer, or other diseases. No fluid was found in this pony.
Veterinarians also used ultrasound to see the contents of his belly.

Based on their findings, the veterinarians treated the pony with mineral oil and magnesium sulfate through the tube in his stomach to try to push any possible blockages through the intestinal tract and out of the body. The pony was given fluids to make sure his electrolytes remain balanced, and he was put on anti-inflammatory drugs and monitored at the hospital.

After 36 hours on this treatment the pony began to spike a high fever, 102.4 degrees F, which typically indicates an infection. He also began to develop fluid inside his belly. The veterinarians decided to put him on several antibiotics that will kill all types of bacteria.

Another ultrasound was ordered to determine the cause of the fluid, fever, and general colic signs. This time, a mass was noted near the stomach. Suspecting cancer, the veterinarians ordered a gastroscopy, a procedure in which a camera is inserted through the nose and esophagus into the stomach and possibly the small intestine.

The gastroscopy revealed an abscess from a stick that had perforated the wall of the stomach. An endoscope was then passed down the esophagus and into the stomach of the pony. The biopsy end of the endoscope was used to remove the stick; antibiotic treatment was continued.

This case had a happy ending. The pony did very well and returned to his loving family.

This case illustrates that it may take the disease process a while to catch up to the diagnostic tests. A mild problem sometimes turns out to have very serious consequences. Medicine, although science-based, is also an art.

The moral of this story? Trust your instincts as an owner, and get your animal to your veterinarian when you see signs of trouble.