07 Feb 2017

It’s the 7pm phone call no owner wants to receive. The phone call to say your horse has colic. For most owners, these calls are accompanied by feelings of fear and anxiety. For horse vets, these calls are never unexpected, because colic is one of the most common reasons an owner will phone a vet after hours. However, one night last week, I was put in an unusual situation, because not only was I the vet receiving the phone call, I was also the owner. One of our own horses had colic.

To make matters worse, it was Lara’s horse, a promising young warmblood mare we have in training with a professional rider. So, in an instant, I was not just the vet despatched to deal with the issue, but also a part owner (only when the horse is going bad!) and the husband of the owner/rider. Triple stress levels now.

This situation really put me under pressure. On a day to day basis, it definitely helps having some emotional distance between myself and the animal because it allows me to keep an entirely clear head when making my clinical assessment. Thankfully, we had a good outcome in this case, Lara’s horse responded well to treatment and returned to normal within 30 minutes then remained that way for the next few days. Crisis over.

However, in some cases, successfully treating colic will require more than just medical management on farm and when horses are non-responsive to treatment, we offer referral to a hospital. Some horses will respond to the more intensive medical management that can be provided in a hospital setting and other horses will need to go to surgery. In the interests of full disclosure, I will be honest and say that Lara and I have had discussions about the level of care we can provide for all of our animals. The reason for this, is quite simply, that colic surgery can be hugely expensive. The bill for a complicated surgery can add up to close to $20,000 not including the many months of post-operative care that will be required. It is also easy to spend $6,000 to $7,000 managing a medical case in a hospital. So, we would not make the decision to refer one of our own horses lightly.

I believe that the best time to make a decision about whether or not you will accept referral for your horse is when your horse does not actually have colic. It may seem strange to make this decision when the horse isn’t sick, but it has allowed us, as owners, to make a rational decision about whether or not we would send our horses to referral. Thinking about this situation ahead of time means that if the worst happens, we have a strategy in place to guide our decision making . We process. We own a couple of horses and the decision making process for each horse is different. One horse would be referred for medical management but we wouldn’t go to surgery. Our other horse would be managed on farm and if she was non-responsive to treatment, we would sadly consider euthanasia.

I will be honest and admit one of the big considerations in both cases is financial. Financial constraints are a fact of life and I, as a vet would never judge a client for letting their financial constraints guide their decision making. When deciding what options can realistically be considered for a horse, I always recommend talking to us, so when a colic presents you will already know about what can and cannot be done for a horse. If you would consider referral, early referral of surgical cases is beneficial and many studies have shown that the shorter the time between presentation with colic symptoms and referral for surgery the better the outcome. Equally, allowing us to refer quickly for medical management of colic can result in a quicker resolution. A good example of this is when a horse suffering from an impaction colic is referred for intravenous fluids.

The take home message is that this time, I am a very relieved husband, owner and vet but being in this situation reminded me to urge everyone to consider what options they can make available to their horse if colic strikes.