Can a practitioner predict a horse's chances of survival after colic surgery? Not with absolute certainty, but several factors can help that prediction, said Anthony Blikslager, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVS, associate professor of equine surgery at North Carolina State University's (NCSU) College of Veterinary Medicine. Blikslager discussed this topic at the 43rd British Equine Veterinary Association Congress, held Sept. 15-18 in Birmingham, U.K.

"Recent studies at NCSU suggest that, of horses presenting for evaluation of colic that go to surgery, approximately 25% are lost at surgery based on the severity of the lesion, including gastrointestinal rupture, and devitalized bowel beyond accessible regions via a midline laparotomy," he said. "Of the horses that are recovered, approximately 80% will ultimately be discharged, after which a further 10-15% will be lost because of long-term complications."

Blikslager noted that out of 259 surgical colics in one study, more than 50% of the fatalities occurred in the early postoperative period (first 7-10-days following surgery), and postoperative ileus (intestinal obstruction) and shock accounted for 70% of those deaths. In another study, ileus accounted for 40% of the postoperative deaths.

So what postoperative factors might a practitioner evaluate to predict which cases might make it and which might not? First, consider the following three problems Blikslager discussed that are associated with post-operative mortality: Shock, ileus, and intra-abdominal adhesions.

He noted that shock parameters "strongly associated with mortality" include the following:

  • Heart rate more than 60 beats per minute in the first 24 hours post-surgery (normal range is 36-48 beats per minute; this increases the odds of death, or the odds ratio, OR, nine times);
  • Packed cell volume (PCV) greater than 42% in the first 24 hours (normal range is 31-47%; OR=3.3);
  • Total plasma protein (TPP) less than 5.5 g/dL in the first 24 hours (normal range is 6-7.5g/dl; OR=4.3); and
  • Prolonged capillary refill time (longer than two seconds); and
  • Abnormal mucous membrane color.

The next problem, postoperative ileus, Blikslager said is most strictly defined as more than two liters of refluxed material (via nasogastric tube) following surgery. The risk of mortality in horses with this problem is more than eight-fold, and he noted that stomach tubes were only passed in horses with elevated heart rates or other indicators of abdominal pain. "Interestingly, use of drugs aimed at modifying motility and hand-walking during hospitalization substantially lowered the risk of mortality (decreasing the OR to 0.6 and 0.7, respectively), probably because of reduced severity of post-operative ileus," he commented.

Blikslager noted that although adhesions tend to affect horses after discharge from the hospital, some factors during surgery and in the immediate post-operative period can identify horses at risk for adhesions. These include recurrent colic, which might indicate that a horse is developing adhesions (OR=8.5), and repeat laparotomy, which causes additional surgical trauma or might be done to correct adhesions (OR=8.3).

Other factors he described included endotoxemia (OR=4.2), septic peritonitis (OR=4.1), and incisional drainage (OR=3.2).

Large colon volvulus, or a twisted large colon, is a cause of colic that carries a guarded prognosis for survival. Blikslager described one study in which 57% of horses that underwent surgery to resect the twisted colon survived in the short term, and only one of those did not survive long-term. Factors that should be most closely assessed include those associated with degenerating mucosa (intestinal lining), including increased heart rate, increased PCV, decreased TPP (indicative of leaking protein), endotoxemia, and recurrent colic. One relatively new method to assess mucosal health is ultrasound, which is capable of measuring the thickness of the lining (a progressive decreases in this thickness would likely indicate resolution of the problem).

Armed with these parameters, practitioners can give owners a more accurate prognosis for recovery in surgical colic cases.

About the Author

Christy M. West

Christy West has a BS in Equine Science from the University of Kentucky, and an MS in Agricultural Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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