Abdominal pain in foals (Proceedings)


Abdominal pain in foals (Proceedings)

Oct 01, 2008

Abdominal pain in the foal can be a frustrating diagnostic challenge as the differential diagnosis are extensive (See Table 1). Abdominal pain can progress rapidly leading to septicemia or even death. The approach to the neonate with a painful or distended abdomen includes history, type and dose of analgesics, administered and whether there are any animals affected with diarrhea. Surgical versus medical treatment may be determined with a proper history and physical exam. Mild signs of colic ( Example: Meconium Impactions or Rotavirus) may include restlessness, attempts to defecate, swishing the tail, straining to urinate/urinating frequently, walking around the stall and not nursing. Severe colic signs should not be ignored and may include bloating, lying down and rolling, abdominal distention, and full body sweat. Immediate placement of a stomach tube should be performed in any foal that had chronic mild signs or colic or violently colicky. The age of the animal is also important in the determination of risks of certain conditions.

During the first 6 to 24 hours of age, congenital atresia of the colon, rectum, anus or meconium impactions are the most frequent causes of colic. In paint foals that are primarily white and whose dam and sire are overo are at risk for ileocolonic aganglionosis. Meconium is composed of glandular secretions from the gastrointestinal tract, amnionic fluid and cellular debris, which should be passed by 24-36 hours of age. In utero sepsis with associated hypoglycemia and sympathomimetic release can have bowel hypomotility and be at high risk for meconium impactions. Meconium impactions are more common in colts because of their narrow pelvic canal. The diagnosis of meconium impactions can be achieved by contrast radiographs, abdominal ultrasonography and/or proctoscopy. If routine warm water enemas do not relieve the impaction then hyperosmolar solutions (Hypertonic saline 3-4ml/kg per rectum) or acetylcysteine retention enemas may be used. The acetycysteine enemas consists of mixing 200ml water, 8 grams of acetylcysteine powder, and 20 g of sodium bicarbonate. A well lubricated 12 or 14 Fr, cuffed Foley urinary catheter is introduced into the rectum and the cuff inflated. 200 ml of the retention enema solution is then slowly infused and the end of the catheter plugged. The catheter is then taped to the foal's tail and left in place for 15 minutes. These enemas can be repeated several times a day. If using the hypertonic solutions for more than 2 treatments in a 24-hour period the sodium status of the patient should be re-evaluated to prevent hypernatremia. Additional therapy includes fluids and laxatives (120 ml of mineral oil SID to BID and/or milk of magnesia 30ml PO QID). Analgesics , such as flunixin meglumine 1.1mg/kg IV SID and butorphanol tartrate 1-2mg IV/IM Q 4-12 hours, may also be necessary to help control the foal's discomfort. Older foals 2-5 days of age are more likely to be suffering from intussusceptions, ruptured bladders, enteritis, gastroduodenal ulceration, inguinal hernias and small intestinal volvulus.

Ultrasonography can be used to help diagnosis conditions that may be causing colic. Dynamically distended small intestine > 2.5cm in diameter with no motility and absence of gastric distention could be suggestive of a small intestinal volvulus. A large amount of peritoneal fluid with a history of infrequent urinations is suggestive of a ruptured bladder. Unfortunately severe abdominal pain is not pathognomonic for a surgical lesion. Tachycardia of excess of 120 beats per minute that is non-responsive to pain medication and in the absence of fever is suggestive of a surgical lesion.


Clinical signs of small intestinal obstruction may include severe colic signs, bruxism, reflux from nares (Most clients may think this is mucus), gastric and small intestinal distention. Laboratory findings are usually non specific with minimal electrolyte disturbances and dehydration secondary to compartmental fluid losses. Use of diagnostic ultrasound will reveal hypomotile loops of small intestine with diameters exceeding 2-3 cm. (Figure 1)

FIGURE 1: Dynamically distended small intestine in a 4 month old foal with a small intestinal volvulus. Note the edema of the serosal surface.

If no motility and edema is noted on the abdominal ultrasound examination then surgical exploration will be warranted.

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