High Blood Sugar Levels and Colic: A Sickeningly Sweet Combination

According to a recent study, approximately 50% of horses with acute abdominal disease also have hyperglycemia--an elevated level of blood glucose--which is associated with a poor prognosis for survival. This knowledge could lead veterinarians to use insulin to manage hyperglycemia in colic patients, possibly improving these patients' chances for survival.

"This is the first report of the actual number of horses with acute abdominal disease that present with hyperglycemia, and the first study to evaluate if an association between blood glucose levels and case outcome exists," explained Anna R. Hollis, BVetMed, MRCVS, a resident at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine's New Bolton Center who co-authored this study.

Hollis and colleagues retrospectively reviewed the records of 269 horses admitted to the Royal Veterinary College Equine Referral Hospital in the United Kingdom with acute abdominal pain between October 2002 and March 2006. These researchers found that half of all horses had hyperglycemia, and nearly half had normal glucose levels. Only 0.4% of horses (1 out of 269) had hypoglycemia.

"Perhaps most interesting was the fact that one-fifth of examined horses had extreme hyperglycemia," reported Hollis. This meant their blood glucose concentrations exceeded 180 mg/deciliter (dL) or 10 millimoles (mmol)/liter (L), which was associated with death, compared to horses with blood glucose levels less than 180 mg/L (10 mmol/L).

Hyperglycemia is a strong predictor (and sometimes considered a potential cause of) increased morbidity (sickness) and mortality in critically ill human patients. Human research has shown that controlling hyperglycemia can result in a significant reduction in mortality.

"Based on the results of this study and our knowledge of hyperglycemia in human medicine, controlling hyperglycemia in horses with acute abdominal disease with insulin may be useful," suggested Hollis.

Further research is needed to fully elucidate the effect of controlling hyperglycemia in colicky horses, and it is anticipated to be a labor-intensive and financially daunting endeavor.

"Blood glucose in horses with acute abdominal disease" was published the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine (volume 21, 2007). Contributing authors were Hollis; Raymond C. Boston, PhD; and Kevin T.T. Corley, BVM&S, PhD, Dipl. ECEIM, Dipl. ACVIM, Dipl. ACVECC, MRCVS.

About the Author

Stacey Oke, DVM, MSc

Stacey Oke, MSc, DVM, is a practicing veterinarian and freelance medical writer and editor. She is interested in both large and small animals, as well as complementary and alternative medicine. Since 2005, she's worked as a research consultant for nutritional supplement companies, assisted physicians and veterinarians in publishing research articles and textbooks, and written for a number of educational magazines and websites.

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