Colic surgery carries many unknowns: Does my horse really need it? How much is it going to cost? And, most importantly, will my horse survive? Researchers from the University of Florida are seeking to answer some of these questions, at least in regard to small intestine resection—a complicated procedure performed on horses suffering from strangulation colic. They recently developed and tested a grading scale designed to help veterinarians determine whether affected horses need this resection and found that, in some cases, they don’t.

Researcher David Freeman, MVB, PhD, Dipl. ACVS, chief of large animal surgery at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine, and colleagues explained in the study that one of the most serious types of colic is small intestine strangulation, which develops from a twist or entrapment of the gut. Such strangulations can interrupt blood flow to a segment of intestine, damaging or possibly killing part of it and necessitating complicated surgical correction.

During surgery veterinarians sometimes have difficulty judging whether the intestine will recover after strangulation if it's damaged rather than dead. One of the most difficult decisions a surgeon must make is whether to remove (or resect) strangulated intestine and reattach the remaining functional ends (or anastomosis, joining the resected bowel back together); alternatively, the small intestine can be left in place to recover on its own. Most surgeons will perform a resection and anastomosis if they doubt the intestine's healing potential, Freeman said. However, problems lie in the fact that unnecessary resection adds to the already expensive surgical costs and can put the horse at risk for developing complications.