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

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While You Were Sleeping, A Surgeon Goes to Work

Pet Column for the week of October 29, 2007

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

While most of us are enjoying our sleep at two in the morning, it is anything but quiet in the equine operating room at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital. A young foal from four hours away has just arrived, and is in need of emergency surgery. Within minutes, the 500-pound foal is swiftly sedated and wheeled into surgery by a small army of personnel headed by veterinary surgeon, Dr. Christopher Byron. If not for the four tiny hooves poking out of blue surgery drapes, one would think they were in a human hospital.

Unfortunately, this scenario is all too typical. Colic, which is a broad term for any type of abdominal upset, is something that affects approximately five to ten percent of all horses according to Dr. Byron. In simplest terms colic is intestinal upset. Whether it is a blockage or a twist, something has gone awry in the digestion tract.

"Most colics can be managed with treatment by your local veterinarian, but roughly five percent of horses that colic will require surgery," says Dr. Byron. Within the profession, if colic can be treated with drugs and simple procedures by a veterinarian it is labeled "medical." If the horse does not respond to such treatment, it is deemed a "surgical" case.

Horse owners cringe with fear when they see classic colic symptoms such as pawing, belly kicking, and rolling. As soon as owners realize their horse is in distress, it is imperative that a veterinarian be called. The sooner a local veterinarian can refer a surgical colic to a hospital, the better it is for the horse. The local veterinarian will try a myriad of procedures and drugs to remedy the situation. If there is no response to treatment, the horse is referred to a specialty hospital. Dr. Byron mentions, "The principal reason for referring a horse is due to severe pain that does not get better with pain medications."

Once the horse arrives at the clinic and the need for surgery is confirmed, the animal is anaesthetized and carefully placed onto a stretcher by a specialized lift. The horse is transported to the surgery suite, and the surgeons soon get down to business. Surgery length can vary depending on the procedure, but in general the shorter the better.

After the last stitch is in, the horse is again moved with the specialized lift into a padded stall. To prevent any injuries, it is here that the horse will awake from anesthesia. Although no surgery follows the textbook, a horse usually stays in the hospital for about five days following surgery. It will be monitored closely and receive IV fluids, antibiotics, and pain medication, as well as simple TLC from students and staff.

Dr. Byron notes that, "Horses that have colic surgery may be at increased risk for another episode. But the specific cause of the colic is a critical point." Even though no surgeon can promise a horse will be saved, current research shows remarkably high success rates. For those who have seen a horse in pain with severe colic, it is comforting to know that if the horse does not respond to treatment from their local veterinarian, hope still rests in the hands of an equine surgeon.

For more information about treatments for colic, contact your local veterinarian.