How Do You Handle Colic?
He’s pawing, kicking at his abdomen with his back hoof, and looking at his sides. Now he’s down for a minute, then back up and off to go nibble on some hay. He acts normal for a while, but then there’s that tapping back hoof again, and down he goes.

What do you do? Call the vet? Check his vital signs? Give him some bran mash? Take him for a walk? Just wait and see?

Recent study results from researchers in Britain have revealed that owners’ actions and decisions in response to signs of colic vary considerably and depend on their knowledge and experience with horses and colic. But there are some similarities within certain groups of horse owners. And veterinarians could benefit from knowing their owners better to foster veterinarian-client communication and improve outcomes of colic episodes.

“For every colic case, there is an owner involved with a variety of beliefs and preferences about how the case is managed, and vets are required to cater to clients with a range of different views,” said Claire Scantlebury, BSc, BVSc, PhD, MRCVS, of the University of Liverpool’s School of Veterinary Science, in the U.K. “It is hoped that by understanding a little more from the owner’s point of view, this work can contribute to the design of messages to assist people with decision-making around managing suspected colic cases and, crucially, when it is best to call the vet.”

In their study, Scantlebury and her fellow researchers interviewed horse owners and reviewed responses from 673 questionnaires about initial colic management from horse owners in the northwestern United Kingdom. Owner actions generally fell into three categories: wait and see, try home remedies, or call a veterinarian. But what people did specifically during those actions, how long they waited or tried them, and what their reasons and beliefs were, varied considerably among owners.

“It has been shown that in cases that require surgery, early referral to veterinary specialists provides the best chance of a good outcome,” Scantlebury said. “Therefore, the timing of the decision to call the vet is an important step involved in this decision-making process.”

However, the researchers detected some similarities among owners in similar ownership situations, so they broke the respondents down into five social groups: competing professionals, noncompeting professionals, competing amateurs, all-around amateurs (leisure owners with a moderate sense of achievement in horse ownership), and friends/companions.

Most owners, regardless of group, recognized the same clinical signs as likely signs of colic, including kicking at the abdomen, rolling, looking at the abdomen, getting up and down, producing a reduced number of droppings, and having a distended abdomen. However, there were differences between the groups in the perceived significance of back pain and temperature. Not all respondents agreed that colic could require surgery, and there were differences in opinion on whether (or why) horses should be walked to prevent rolling.

The researchers also noted significant differences among groups with regard to decisions about treatment, such as how the horse responded to home treatments, their current financial status, and whether the horse was insured. Factors influencing the choice to operate varied among groups and included the horse’s insurance and retirement status and whether he was well-adapted for his use or financially valuable.

“We were interested in looking at the owner’s actions and how experience, knowledge, beliefs, and other factors feed into decisions made about when to call the vet when faced with a colic episode,” Scantlebury said. “Through in-depth discussions with owners, it was found that there was a variety of approaches to managing colic, some of these were influenced by previous experience, but also the reason for keeping horses and the human-horse relationship shaped decision-making around colic management, particularly relating to surgery and euthanasia.”

Overall, the study should help frame tailored education programs that are adapted to owners’ specific backgrounds, Scantlebury said.

“By acknowledging the diversity among equine caretakers, it is conceivable that in order to reach people for educational purposes, a ‘one size fits all’ message may not suit everybody, either in the route that the message is delivered, or the content or relevance of the message itself,” she said. “We hope that this paper contributes to discussions about how to deliver educational information and advice to larger populations.”

The study team comprised of Elizabeth Perkins, RGN, BSc(Hons), PhD; Debra Archer, BVMS, PhD, CertES (soft tissue), Dipl. ECVS, FHEA, MRCVS; Rob Christley, Reader in epidemiology, BVSc, Dipl. VCS, MVCS, PhD, Dipl. ECVPH, MRCVS; and Gina Pinchbeck, Reader in veterinary epidemiology, BVSc, certES, PhD. Dipl. ECVPH, MRCVS.

The study, “Could it be colic? Horse-owner decision making and practices in response to equine colic,” was published in BMC Veterinary Research.