by Casie Bazay

Expectations for Horse Colic Surgery

Expectations for Horse Colic Surgery

Published: October 2020 | Updated: March 2024

The “C word” has been known to strike fear in the heart of many a horse owner, and not without cause. It’s the number one medical killer of horses, not counting old age. 

Fortunately, many types of colic episodes resolve with minimal veterinary intervention, but in some cases, abdominal surgery becomes the only means available to save a horse’s life. This is often the case with enteroliths, some types of impaction, and with a strangulated segment of intestine, aka “twisted gut”.

Colic surgery isn’t an option for every horse owner, as it is expensive and can be emotionally draining, but if you do choose to go this route, here are a few commonly asked questions and things to be aware of during the process. 

How Successful is Colic Surgery? 

There is no clear-cut guide as to which horses will make a full recovery after surgery, but horses under six months of age tend to have a lower survival rate because they are at a greater risk of developing adhesions. 

Surgeries to remove enteroliths and impactions tend to have high success rates, and the lowest survival rates are usually colics caused by strangulation of the small intestine. Even then, survival is linked with the duration of the strangulation, in other words, how long the bowel has been “twisted.” However, early diagnosis and prompt surgical intervention can reportedly result in success rates as high as 90% for these cases.

How Long Does it Take a Horse to Recover from Colic Surgery?

Your horse will likely stay at the surgical intensive care facility for a week or two after the operation for close monitoring and treatment. Once he returns home, stall rest is strongly recommended, along with hand walking and limited grazing for the first four weeks.  

After the first month, horses can typically move to a small paddock for another four weeks before resuming a regular turnout routine. Exercise and training can resume after 10-12 weeks, so long as the incision has fully healed, and there are no post-operative complications. 

As always, work side-by-side with your veterinarian to ensure your horse’s recovery success.

Possible Complications of Colic Surgery on a Horse

Though surgery is often successful, it does not come without risks. Possible complications include: 

    • Endotoxic shock, where damaged bowel can release bacteria which then may release endotoxins that can depress the heart and inhibit circulation to the body;
    • Peritonitis, an intestinal infection which can prove fatal;
    • Adhesions, which are essentially areas of scar tissue that can obstruct blood flow to the intestines and cause chronic colic and pain; 
    • Ileus, a condition caused by endotoxic shock, infection, or bowel distention, in which the bowel ceases normal motility;
    • Incisional hernia, a painless bulge that can develop at the site of the incision. Smaller hernias may be harmless, but larger ones could trap a portion of the bowel and cause another surgical colic episode; and
    • Laminitis, a rare complication associated with severe disease and shock possibly linked with the release of proteins and endotoxins during or directly following colic surgery.

This list is not meant to scare you, but rather help give you the context to have an educated conversation with your veterinarian, should you ever be in this scenario. 

Preventing Horse Colic 

Life happens and you may not always be able to prevent colic 100% of the time. Some horses are more prone to colic than others and different circumstances can sometimes open the door to horse colic.

That being said, here are a few steps you can take to decrease your horse’s risk:

  1. Provide free choice access to quality forage.
  2. Provide smaller, more frequent grain meals. Feeding grain 2-3 times per day vs. 1 large grain meal is best.  
  3. Give your horse plenty of turnout time.
  4. Make changes slowly. 
  5. Support your horse’s gut health with equine probiotic supplements for assurance through the changes you cannot control.  

Shop our veterinarian formulated supplements here!← 

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