Study: Filly Survives Colic Caused by Porcupine Quill

Study: Filly Survives Colic Caused by Porcupine Quill

A porcupine quill intestinal puncture is a life-threatening condition with significant risks of complications following surgery.

Photo: Thinkstock

Why did your horse colic? Was the cause dehydration? Stress? Ulcers? Porcupines? That's right—if you’ve got porcupines in your area, your horse could end up in a prickly situation similar to the one an 11-month-old Andalusian filly found herself in: having two colic surgeries after swallowing a porcupine quill.

“We think 'Luta' got it in the hay,” said Stacy Anderson, DVM, PhD candidate at the University of Saskatchewan’s Western College of Veterinary Medicine, in Saskatoon, Canada. “Most horses would be able to sift through their hay well enough to avoid eating a quill. However, this filly was young and so potentially less discerning in her eating habits (as many young horses are).”

Anderson recently published a study describing her experience with the case.

Once in the digestive tract, the quill pierced through the intestines—twice—and then got stuck, Anderson said. After two operations, weeks of hospitalization, and three months of stall rest, the filly was finally freed of the quill and most of its consequences on her digestive system.

“Luta had a couple of spasmodic colic episodes after she came home (from the hospital), but they cleared themselves,” said the filly’s owner, Jody Rutherford of Rutherford Rubicon Farm near Saskatoon. Today, four years later, Rutherford still has to be watchful of Luta’s digestive health, and she still has mild colic once or twice a year.

“She is on pre- and probiotics for her stomach and electrolytes to keep her drinking lots,” she said. “But otherwise she is healthy.”

What Happened?

Home-bred Luta was found colicking and “in considerable distress” when Rutherford went out to the barn for morning feeding in early 2010. Despite treatment by a local veterinarian, the filly's condition worsened. Rutherford transported her to the University of Saskatchewan where veterinarians confirmed she had an intestinal blockage requiring surgery.

Surgeon Anderson said she found two puncture holes in the intestines during the procedure, one of which still had the quill embedded in it. She removed the quill and closed the holes, but a week later the filly had an additional operation due to adhesion formation.

“Adhesions are the result of dysfunctional inflammation and healing in the abdomen,” Anderson said. “The body initially forms them to assist healing after an insult to the abdomen has occurred (e.g., an abdominal incision is made, intestine is resected, or intestine is handled). Adhesions become problematic when the body fails to revise and remove them, which is the normal process following their formation, leading to them becoming stronger and mature and possibly interfering with the flow of ingesta (digesting food) through the digestive tract.”

Luta wearing a hernia belt after her second surgery.

Photo: Courtesy Jody Rutherford

After the second surgery, Anderson said she treated the filly for additional milder colics and fitted her with a hernia belt to prevent hernia development at the incision site. However, Luta developed a mild hernia—a painless but visible bulge on the abdominal wall—at the incision site anyway. Veterinarians determined the hernia was not threatening enough to justify an additional operation.

How'd It Happen?

Horses sometimes pick up foreign objects while they eat, but usually these objects don’t pierce through the intestines, Anderson said. They can form a nidus or enterolith (stonelike masses that develop around a foreign object). Some of these will pass through the digestive tract without major damage; however, sharp metallic objects, such as pieces of metal wire, have been known to pierce the intestine.

Porcupine quills' hooklike structure can make them particularly tricky, Anderson said. “They have a tendency to migrate in tissues due to their unique structure, which likely explains why they perforated the intestine in this filly rather than passing harmlessly through the digestive tract,” she explained.

A decomposed porcupine carcass in a hay bale could still leave viable quills, she added. “Animal carcasses being included in baled hay is not uncommon,” she said. “It’s one of the primary ways horses are exposed to botulism, especially in large round bales. It would be difficult to spot loose porcupine quills in hay, even in a flake from a small square bale, which was used to feed the filly in this case.”

A porcupine quill intestinal puncture is certainly a life-threatening condition with significant risks of complications following surgery, and owners must be advised about those risks, Anderson said. “This may lead to the decision to euthanize, but that is the owner's decision,” she said.

Euthanasia was not an option for Rutherford, who said she had strongly bonded with the filly since birth. She said the extra efforts to care for Luta through the most difficult times were worth it.

Four years after the ordeal, Luta’s owner must pay close attention to the mare's digestive health.

Photo: Courtesy Jody Rutherford

“It was three months of hauling hay and water, hand-walking and grazing, cleaning stalls and incisions, vet checks, worry, and trying to get some sleep, but Luta was a real trooper,” she said. Now, at 5 years old, the filly is beginning her training under saddle.

“The odds were not in favor for this filly, but the owner persevered, and she survived,” Anderson said. “We are not always that fortunate.”

The study, "Jejunal perforation due to porcupine quill ingestion in a horse," was published in the Canadian Veterinary Journal

About the Author

Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA

Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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