Study: Colic Surgery Survival Rates in Geriatric Horses

Advances in nutrition and medicine are allowing our equine companions to live longer than ever. But for the average horse owner that also means more years worrying about colic; and the older the horse, the greater the risk.

A recent study from researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center gives hope to owners of geriatric horses; the study found that overall survival rates of geriatric horses post-colic surgery were similar to those of mature horses.

The two-part study determined that horses in their late teens and early twenties with colic should not be euthanized because of a poor prognosis based solely on age.

"Some owners and veterinarians are of the opinion that older horses do not do as well following colic surgery," said Louise Southwood, BVSc, PhD, Dipl. ACVS, Dipl. ACVECC, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania and lead author on the study. "It is important that we provide owners with accurate information so that they can make informed decisions about whether or not to have their horse undergo colic surgery."

Southwood and her colleagues reviewed admission and treatment data for 600 horses referred to the New Bolton Center for colic between 2000 and 2006. Three hundred horses aged four to 15 years were classified as mature nongeriatric, and 300 horses 16 years old or older were classified as geriatric. One hundred thirty-four geriatric horses were further subcategorized as 20 years or older. The study followed medically and surgically treated colic cases, noting the type and location of the lesion, procedures performed, and short-term survival to hospital discharge.

"Survival to hospital discharge is one of the biggest hurdles," said Southwood.

The researchers found that geriatric horses were more likely to be painful at hospital admission and have decreased intestinal sounds compared to mature horses. This is likely attributed to the difference in types of colic found in geriatric horses compared to mature horses.

The study showed geriatric horses were more likely to have strangulating lesion, cutting off blood supply to a portion of the intestines, increasing the need for surgery. Survival rates for surgically treated small or large intestinal strangulations did not differ between geriatric and mature horses. While geriatric horses with large colon obstructions had a lower survival rate after surgery than mature horses, the survival rate was still high at around 80%.

Medically managed geriatric horses had lower survival rates as compared to mature because their owners often elected euthanasia over colic surgery. Southwood suggests this is because there are few studies on survival and complication rates of older horses following colic surgery. With a lack of research, veterinarians often do not know how to best advise their clients.

"Early referral and surgical treatment is essential for a good outcome, higher survival, and lower complications, in any colic case. Therefore, when a veterinarian is examining an older horse with colic they should keep this in mind so as not to delay surgery," said Southwood.

Researchers at the New Bolton Center are currently investigating long-term survival and postoperative complications of geriatric compared to mature horses with colic.

The abstracts of the two-part study, "Colic in geriatric compared to mature nongeriatric horses. Part 1: Retrospective review of clinical and laboratory data" and "Colic in geriatric compared to mature nongeriatric horses. Part 2: Treatment, diagnosis and short-term survival," were published electronically this August in The Equine Veterinary Journal and are available on PubMed.

About the Author

Megan Cassels-Conway

Megan Cassels-Conway is a third-year veterinary student.

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