How Old is Too Old for Colic Surgery?

Veterinarians at the New Bolton Center have made some surprising discoveries concerning older horses and colic surgery. Survival rates for older horses undergoing surgery did not differ significantly from younger horses in a recent study.

Just like their human counterparts, horses are living longer. With the increase in longevity comes an increase in the opportunity for colic. Veterinarians at the New Bolton Center at University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine studied the responses of mature and aged patients presented at the hospital with symptoms of colic and treated surgically for the condition. The goal of the research study was to give owners more accurate information on the likelihood of survival and complications that they might encounter with older horses following colic surgery.

For the purposes of the project, survival rates and post-operative complications of colic patients were studied retrospectively. The sample included 300 geriatric horses, defined as 16-20 years of age, and 300 mature horses, 4-15 years old, admitted to New Bolton Center's George D. Widener Hospital for Large Animals in Kennett Square, Pa.

"Gastrointestinal tract problems and signs of colic are among the most common reasons for admission of geriatric horses to referral hospitals," said Louise Southwood PhD, Assistant Professor of Emergency Medicine and Critical Care at New Bolton Center. Southwood, who is board certified in surgery as well as emergency and critical care, led the study.

"Owners are often concerned that performing surgery on their geriatric horses might not be in the best interest of the horse," she said. "We wanted to be able to give them the information with which to make an informed decision."

While the geriatric horses seemed no more critically ill than their mature counterparts, the odds that their colic was caused by a strangulating small intestinal lesion, a condition that requires surgery, were twice that of the mature horses. What surprised the research team was that the difference in the survival rates between geriatric and mature horses that underwent such surgery was negligible—86% to 83%. Similarly, the short-term survival rates for geriatric and mature horses with large intestinal strangulating lesions, such as a twisted colon, was 78% and 70%. Large intestinal simple obstruction, such as an impaction or displacement, was 80% and 97%, respectively.

These figures reflect pre-discharge data only. The numbers didn't change significantly if the horses classified as geriatric were 16 years or 20 years of age. Researchers did note, however, that the geriatric horses were more likely to have a short period of loss of appetite following surgery.

"The results of this study are important for horse owners," said Southwood, "because they can help owners make a decision regarding whether or not to undergo surgery."

The same team of researchers plans to look at the long-term survival of horses from ages 20-25 in the future. The Equine Veterinary Journal has just published the research study online.

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