Colic in horses may be an acute bout that either improves spontaneously or responds to medical or surgical intervention .
Some horses suffer from chronic colic which pose a diagnostic delema for the medical clinician. In one study by Proudman
(1991) only a small percentage (7%) require surgical intervention. Despite this low percentage of horses that would need surgery
we as equine veterinarian are still are challenged as to which cases can be treated with medical therapy alone and which cases
need surgical intervention. An early decision regarding the need for surgical therapy is essential. A delay in appropriate
therapy increases the risk of a poor outcome. This talk will review the basics of the colic physical exam, ultrasonography,
laboratory tests and pain management. Case examples will also be presented to help illustrate to the audience that the decision
for medical or surgical treatment varies with each case.
Basic Physical Exam
Must assess the following for an abnormality to help determine the need for an exploratory laparotomy:
Abdominocentesis (If Warranted)
Abdominal pain is usually associated with lumen distention, tension of the mesentery and/or ischemic injury. A simple obstruction
will usually cause a low grade chronic pain which over time may wax and wane or slowly become worse as the degree of lumen
distention increases. A large colon torsion or small intestinal volvulus which may cause rapid distention of the intestine
as well as ischemic injury will cause unrelenting abdominal pain. Pain that is easily relieved by NSAIDS or Xylazine may respond
to simple medical therapy. A short term response or incomplete response to pain medication is suggestive of a surgical lesion.
Buscopan (N-butylscopalammonium bromide 20mg/ml- Boehringer Ingelheim) is an anticholinergic has been FDA approved in the
management of gastrointestinal spasmodic colic. Unlike atropine, it has a very short plasma half-life concentration (15-25
min) and receptor acitivity. Animals that continue to colic through this medication (0.3mg/kg IV) in my experience are more
likely to have a surgical lesion. Abatement of pain in the face of persistent depression and deterioration of the cardiovascular
parameters (Cold sweat, cyanotic mucus membrane color, Full Body Tremors) may be associated with the presence of non-viable
intestine, which is no longer painful due to disruption of its nerve supply. These cases warrant surgical exploration or
Cardiovascular (CV) compromise in the colic patient will be associated with the severity of the lesion. The CV status is assessed
with the measurement of the heart rate, rhythm, pulse quality, mucus membrane color, capillary refill time and distal limb
perfusion (Warm or Cold to palpation).
Hypovolemic shock occurs secondary from a decrease in circulating blood volume that occurs when extracellular fluid is sequestered
in a third space such as a distended large colon or small intestine/stomach. Dehydration occurs in patients with hypovolemic
shock when fluid is moved from the Intracellular Space→ Extracellular Space→ Lumen of the distended Bowel. In an effort to
provide proper tissue perfusion the heart rate will increase.
Mucus membrane color and capillary refill time are very practical measurements that signal changes in the cardiovascular system.
Mucus membrane color may initially with endotoxemic shock be a bright red color with a fast capillary refill time since the
endotoxins will initially cause a hyperdynamic state (Increased HR with Capillary Vasoconstriction). As the bowel becomes
more compromised then more endotoxins will enter into circulation . Various cytokines such as TNF and IL-1 are responsible
for the hypodynamic shock phase. In this phase marked vasodilation occurs (Hypotensive Shock) which compromises peripheral
perfusion and causing the darker (cyanotic) mucus membrane color and prolonged capillary refill time.