When a horse is in the midst of a bout of colic, many owners wonder if their animal will need surgery to fix the problem. For those owners who have never experienced a referral to an emergency medical clinic for surgery or intensive care, understanding their veterinarian’s decision on how and where to treat the colic can be confusing.

During a presentation at the American Association of Equine Practitioners Focus on Colic Meeting, held July 24-26 in Indianapolis, Ind., Nathaniel A. White, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVS, Jean Ellen Shehan Professor and Director at Virginia Tech’s Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center in Leesburg Va., discussed what veterinarians look for when deciding whether to send a horse to a referral hospital for surgery and what factors might negate their decision to do so.

"Determining the need for referral or surgery for a horse with colic is usually made on an emergency basis," he began. "The decision is best based on a diagnosis; however, a specific diagnosis is not always possible, and the use of clinical signs is often necessary to make the decision."

White emphasized that no hard and fast rules dictate whether a horse will need surgery, and that each case should be "judged on its own merits based on the history and a thorough examination.

"The history and presentation may indicate the need for immediate surgical intervention without taking the time to process all the information from a complete colic examination," he added, as time is critical when recommending referral. Previous studies have shown that horses with a history of colic are at higher risk for more colic episo