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

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Can you Judge a Horse by its Color?


Pet Column for the week of September 28, 2009

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

Source - Elysia Schaefer, DVM
It sure would be nice if equine surgeons could pull out their crystal ball during prepurchase exams and tell an owner whether or not they foresee the horse needing colic surgery in the future. Unfortunately, no one has quite figured out how to do that yet. However, from reviewing statistical data from large populations of patients experts have noticed that certain breeds of horses are predisposed to certain types of colic.

For example, Dr. Elysia Schaefer, an equine surgery resident at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana says, "strangulating lipomas are very common in older Arabians and quarter horses." A lipoma is a benign mass of fatty tissue that forms into a circular ball. It is unknown exactly why it starts to grow, or why Arabians and quarter horses are predisposed, but it has the ability to cut off blood flow to the intestinal tract.

As the ball of fatty tissue begins to grow, it drops further and further into the abdomen as a result of gravity. The stalk, or piece of tissue that is still attaching the lipoma to the mesentery, a membrane that suspends the intestines in place, can become wrapped around the intestine causing a painful problem for the horse and an emergency for an equine surgeon. Fortunately, not all lipomas will need surgery. Some may hang out in the horse's abdomen for a lifetime with no signs of colic. Though it should be mentioned that in a few rare cases suspected lipomas have been found to be malignant versions called liposarcomas that can metastasize to other parts of the body.

Although Arabians may be one of the smallest breeds, miniature horses come just a bit smaller, but not necessarily with smaller problems. "Miniature horses are prone to fecolith impaction," says Dr. Schaefer. In contrast to the lipoma found in Arabians, which causes pain and loss of blood supply by strangulating the bowel, fecoliths, which are a hardened fecal ball, can impede the normal flow of food through the intestines. It too causes colic, though in most cases it is not an emergency. Miniatures with this problem typically present with slow, progressive, intermittent abdominal pain.

Standardbred, Tennessee walking horse, and quarter horse stallions are also predisposed to scrotal hernias. In contrast to the reducible and non-emergency type of scrotal hernia sometimes found in young male foals, where you can manually move the intestines back into the abdominal cavity, "most of the scrotal hernias in adult males are non-reducible and will strangulate the bowel," says Dr. Schaefer. In short, these hernias are emergencies. Again, why certain breeds are more prone to this life-threatening problem compared to others is unknown.

On a final note, though anyone who smokes is at an increased risk for lung cancer, it doesn't mean that everyone who takes up the habit will get the disease. The same holds true for horse breeds. If you fall head over hooves for that petite Arabian who melts your heart, don't let the statistics about lipomas sway your vote. Nearly every horse breed has a predisposition to one disease or another, and until equine surgeons can get their crystal ball working, no one knows what the future holds.