Colic Surgery: Yes or No?
Horse and Rider|Winter 2020
Is your horse a candidate for colic surgery? These five factors can help you decide.

Your gelding started acting a little bit uncomfortable just over an hour ago. By the time your vet arrived, the poor horse was in a full-blown sweat, pawing violently and throwing himself down in the barn aisle no matter how hard you tried to keep him on his feet. Even after IV sedation and a dose of pain medication, he was still uncomfortable. The look on your vet’s face told you everything you needed to know. Her next question confirmed your greatest fear. “Is he a candidate for a colic surgery?”

There’s nothing more stressful than a severely colicky horse. And if your horse needs surgery to correct his colic, there’s no other option that’ll save his life. To make things even scarier, time can make the difference between a successful outcome and disaster. When your vet asks you whether your horse is a candidate for colic surgery, she needs an answer, and she needs it now. That’s why it’s best to know that answer before colic ever strikes.

In this article, I’m going to help you determine whether you’d say yes if your horse needed colic surgery. I’ll start by outlining basic facts about the procedure and what you can expect. Then, I’ll explain what things your vet might do differently for a colicky horse where surgery would be the choice, compared to what she’d do if it were not an option. Finally, I’ll outline five factors to consider when making that decision for your own horse.

‘The look on your vet’s face told you everything you needed to know.’

First, the Facts

You may have heard all kinds of different things about colic surgery—ranging from the stories of the horses that needed surgery but got better with essential oils, to terrifying tales of those that suffered through a terrible recovery only to colic again. Here are some basic facts you’ll need to understand when making your decision.

Mild to moderate colic episodes are commonly due to gas pain or feed blocking a portion of the intestines, and many can be managed medically.

When surgery is essential:

Mild to moderate colic episodes are commonly due to gas pain or feed blocking a portion of the intestines (an impaction), and many can be managed medically. Surgical colic is a whole new game. If your horse has a loop of intestine that’s become displaced (is in an abnormal position), twisted around itself, or somehow become trapped and “strangulated,” his problem won’t be solved with any kind of medical treatment—he’ll require surgery to survive. (That horse that recovered from essential oils didn’t really need surgery in the first place.) When surgery is necessary, it’s important to realize that more pain-relieving medications or “a little more time” won’t help. In fact, longer delays can lead to more damage and a poorer prognosis overall.

Is there a chance that surgery would be recommended but your horse doesn’t really need it? Yes, it’s possible. But with sophisticated diagnostic tools, and the extensive training and experience of most equine surgeons on your side, it’s highly unlikely. Rest assured, no one wants to take your horse to surgery if it isn’t necessary.

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