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What is Abdominal or Colic Surgery?

Colic is the term used to describe abdominal pain in your horse. Colic can be caused by a number of conditions, most of which resolve themselves or can be treated with medication. However some causes of colic require surgical intervention to resolve. 

In the past, surgery to correct abdominal disorders causing colic was associated with poor or guarded prognosis as the risks of anesthesia, abdominal surgery, and recovery in horses was associated with many complications. Recently, much progress has been made in establishing protocols for equine anesthetic, surgical procedures and interventions to aid recovery from surgery, making surgical intervention for colic that does not respond to treatment a much more viable option, with most horses making a good recovery. The procedure needs to be performed at a clinic equipped to perform equine abdominal surgery and by a veterinary surgeon qualified to do so. In addition, a trained equine anesthesiologist should be employed to achieve the best outcome for abdominal surgery in your horse. 

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Abdominal or Colic Surgery Procedure in Horses

Abdominal surgery in your horse requires general anesthetic that can be complicated in horses and especially in horses experiencing distress from colic symptoms. A specialized anesthesiologist with knowledge of advanced anesthetic techniques is recommended if available.

A clinic with the ability to handle equine surgery is required. Your horse will be administered intravenous fluids and medications prior to surgery. The area for abdominal surgery will be clipped and cleaned. Intravenous anesthetic will be administered to render your horse unconscious and they will slowly be lowered to the floor. An endotracheal tube will be inserted and anesthesia maintained by gas for the duration of the procedure. The horse is then hoisted, usually with hobbles attached to his lower legs, and lifted onto a hydraulic surgical table for where your horse will be secured on their back and a ventilator and equipment to monitor vital signs during the procedure employed. The surgical site will be cleaned antiseptically and surgical drapes used to ensure a sterile incision site. 

A large incision, often 12-15 inches, is made on the horse's abdomen and your veterinary surgeon will manipulate organs to isolate the problem, if determined prior to surgery, or begin exploring the digestive system for cause of colic. If an unrepairable condition or one with poor prognosis is discovered, the horse may need to be euthanized during surgery. Most causes of colic discovered during surgical intervention are repairable, and depending on the cause, your veterinary surgeon will perform surgery to remove tumors or dead tissues, manipulate misplaced organs back into place or remove blockages. 

Incisions will be repaired and observed for signs of leakage, vascularization will be litigated as required during surgery. Surgery can take from 90 minutes to 4 hours depending on the cause and intervention required. Once the condition has been repaired and concerns addressed, the abdominal incision will be sutured shut and the horse will be moved to a padded stall for recovery. Some horses panic and are disoriented during recovery from anesthesia and require monitoring by hospital staff and assistance with ropes to get to their feet. A full body bandage may be employed to provide support to the abdominal incision and prevent tissues putting pressure on the wound. Intravenous fluids are often continued along with antibiotics and pain medication following surgery. Hospitalization can be required for up to a week or more.

Efficacy of Abdominal or Colic Surgery in Horses

The prognosis for abdominal surgery in horses has improved considerably in recent years and the majority of horses, approximately 75%, recover from colic surgery. The efficacy varies depending on the severity of the condition and how much damage has been caused to digestive system organs prior to surgery. Current anesthesia and recovery practices have improved success rates dramatically.

Abdominal or Colic Surgery Recovery in Horses

Horses are hospitalized for a week or more, during which time they are given fluids intravenously and antibiotics for several days. Feed is reintroduced cautiously for two to three days post surgery and should not include grain. Your horse is closely monitored for signs of recovery of digestive functioning. Body temperature should be closely monitored in the hospital and when at home for two weeks by taking temperature rectally daily. The abdominal incision should be observed daily for signs of infection or discharge or compromise of the wound. Your horse will have to be checked for symptoms of colic recurrence or laminitis. Feed composed of grass or alfalfa hay is recommended post-surgery and stall rest with limited walking for 30 to 60 days post-surgery. For 30 to 90 days after surgery, limited turn out in a small pen or corral is allowed. Two to four months after surgery, a gradual return to preoperative activity is recommended. Your veterinarian should be scheduled for regularly intervaled check ups during the recovery period. Full recovery takes three to four months.

Cost of Abdominal or Colic Surgery in Horses

The cost of abdominal surgery is high and can range from $8,000 to $12,000 or more. Cost depends on your location, distance to a clinic equipped to perform abdominal equine surgery, and the condition requiring surgical correction. Some conditions are less expensive to correct and recover from than others and until surgery is performed, the extent of intervention and repair required may not be known.

Horse Abdominal or Colic Surgery Considerations

Major risks associated with abdominal surgery in horses are the administration and recovery from anesthetic. An experienced anesthesiologist and a clinic with facilities and staff equipped to deal with distressed horses recovering from anesthetic will mitigate these risks. 

Infection is problematic with abdominal surgery and antibiotic will be administered during and post-surgery to address this risk. Careful monitoring of your horse during the recovery period to observe complications from infection or recurrence of colic is required.

Motility problems can occur from surgery especially if a return to feed causes complications. Intestinal adhesions are a risk from abdominal surgery that can result in displaced intestines and additional bouts of colic. Surgery on the large intestine is less prone to the development of adhesions and associated with better prognosis. In addition, the more abdominal organ preservation that can be achieved during surgery the better your horse’s prognosis and achieved recovery will be. 

Prompt treatment and clinical resources to treat colic surgically will reduce the likelihood of complications to your horse’s recovery.

Abdominal or Colic Surgery Prevention in Horses

There are several precautions horse owners can take to decrease the chances colic incidence. Ensure that your horse is fed several small meals a day instead of a few large ones, ensure adequate forage is available, and provide turnout and routine exercise and activity. Avoid sandy turn out areas or dirty feed that could result in dirt accumulating in your horse's gut. Regularly deworm your horse so that parasites do not become problematic and ensure your deworming program addresses drug resistance of parasites. Make small slow changes to feed, housing, and exercise routines when possible. Ensure your horse has adequate dental care so that they can masticate food adequately, preventing large food portions from being ingested that could cause a blockage.