Colic in Geriatrics

Older horses are at higher risk for certain types of colic, said Anthony Blikslager, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVS, associate professor of equine surgery in North Carolina State University's College of Veterinary Medicine. He reported on studies of older horses and colic during the 43rd British Equine Veterinary Association Congress, held Sept. 15-18 in Birmingham, U.K.

"According to recent studies, colic is the single most common disease requiring medical attention in geriatric horses," Blikslager stated. Two types of colic common to the older horse are impaction colic from poor dentition and the strangulating lipoma, or a fatty tumor on a stalk that "strangles" some part of the intestine, hampering its function.

"The reason for the predisposition of aged horses to lipomas probably relates to the number of years required to form a lipoma with a sufficient length of stalk to strangulate intestine," he explained. Metabolic changes due to age might also play a role.

Older geldings, he said, have a 2.3-fold increase in the risk of this tumor than mares or stallions, and ponies have a 3.7-fold increase in risk. Why? "They have a greater propensity to lay down body fat," Blikslager explained. "The short-term survival rate (for horses having this tumor) is 48-79%, and the long-term survival rate is 38-50%. However, it's been shown that there is no decrease in survival rate with an increase in age (of the patient)."

Blikslager also discussed a study on colic survival in which 697 colic cases from 1990-93 were followed. Surgery was suggested for 341 of them; 23 horses were electively euthanatized, and 318 went to surgery. A total of 78% were discharged. Thirty-eight cases (11%) were older than 20 years.

Blikslager and colleagues found that horses older than 20 years were significantly less likely to survive in the short term (odds ratio=5.5, or these horses are 5.5 times less likely to survive), and these horses also had a much higher rate of strangulating lipomas affecting the small intestine (OR=11.8). However, he said, "The survival of aged horses within each lesion type was not significantly different (from younger horses). The prognosis is based on the lesion, not on age (of the horse).

"However, veterinarians should also consider the quality and length of life that may be expected following colic surgery," he went on. "When considering the fact that full recovery from colic surgery requires up to six months, owners should very carefully consider the repercussions of the recovery phase in very old horses. Horses nearing the age of 30 may lack the muscular strength to have a good anesthetic recovery, and may lack the energy reserves to make a rapid recovery in the post-operative period.

"Colic is a major problem in geriatrics," he concluded. "Pay close attention to their dentition and feed, and keep in mind that they are still good surgical candidates and that they are at higher risk for strangulating lipomas."

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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