Study: Most Horses Go Back to Work After Colic Surgery

Study: Most Horses Go Back to Work After Colic Surgery

Of the horses discharged from the clinic, the majority returned to work in their previous or intended discipline and 78.5% performed at their former or a higher level.


It wasn’t long ago that colic surgeries were viewed as a last resort to save affected horses. As veterinary technology and experience performing such procedures have advanced, so have the long-term survival rates of horses recovering from colic surgery. But while study results have revealed that overall survival rates have increased, only a handful of studies have followed a horse’s return to use and performance long-term following colic surgery.

To that end, Isa Immonen, DVM, and colleagues at the University of Helsinki, in Finland, recently studied the long-term prognosis and subsequent long-term use and complications of horses that survived colic surgery. The team reviewed the cases of 236 horses of different breeds and disciplines that had undergone surgery four to eight years ago.

Overall, Immonen found that survival and return to work rates among the general population of horses was consistent with similar previous studies. Most of the horses (82.6%; 195/236) recovered from anesthesia, and 74.9% (146/195) were discharged from the clinic. The team collected full follow-up data on 92.5% (135/146) of the discharged horses. Of those, the majority (83.7%, 113/135) returned to work in their previous or intended discipline and 78.5% (106/135) performed at their former or a higher level.

However, she was surprised by a few other findings.

“One of the interesting findings was that the large intestinal colic patients were 3.3 times more prone to have postoperative colic episodes compared to the small intestinal patients,” she said.

To the team’s knowledge this has not been reported as clearly in previous study populations, Typically, the small intestinal patients have generally been regarded to be more prone to complications postoperatively, she said.

Similarly, Immonen’s results differed from previous findings about the lasting impact of postoperative hernias. However, she cautioned, in this and previous studies, the total number of postoperative hernias have been small. “Most of the previous studies found out that formation of postoperative hernia affects the future working capacity of the horse negatively,” she said. “However, in our study, formation of hernia did not have a negative effect on the probability of the horse returning back to performance.”

Immonen was also surprised by horse owners’ general attitude and positivity toward colic surgery. Even though the surgery is expensive and not without risk and the recovery period can be lengthy, horse owners tended to opt for it in situations where recovery is likely.

“For a practicing veterinarian, and as one myself, the findings of this study can facilitate the discussion we have with horse owners about colic treatment, options, and prognosis,” she said. “Colic surgery is expensive, and no horse owner wants to prolong a horse’s pain or suffering.”

The study, “Long-term follow-up on recovery, return to use and sporting activity: a retrospective study of 236 operated colic horses in Finland (2006-2012),” was published in Acta Veterinaria Scandinavica

About the Author

Katie Navarra

Katie Navarra has worked as a freelance writer since 2001. A lifelong horse lover, she owns and enjoys competing a dun Quarter Horse mare.

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