If you were to ask a horse owner or veterinarian their greatest equine health concern, the answer might surprise you. Foot and leg injuries are devastating in horses, but that’s not what keeps owners up at night. Surveys of horse owners and equine veterinarians conducted by Morris Animal Foundation and the American Association of Equine Practitioners show colic (abdominal pain due to any cause) is what those who know horses best worry about the most.
For horse owners, colic can be a frightening diagnosis. For veterinarians, colic can be a challenge to treat when a horse’s condition rapidly worsens. Severe cases can lead to difficult decisions about euthanasia. Even in the best-case scenario, treating colic can be costly for horse owners.
Experts say 4%-10% of all horses will experience at least one episode of colic in their lifetime. Most cases can be resolved on the farm with medical treatment, but approximately 10%-15% of cases need advanced care.
Colic is common in horses because of their specialized digestive tract, which differs from other grazing animals, and it doesn’t take much to throw the system off balance. Many things can cause colic, but the most common are:
- Stretching of the intestinal wall (usually by gas or partially digested food)
- Twisting of the intestine
- Intestinal blockage (sand, parasites, feedstuffs and foreign materials are frequent culprits)
- Inflammation or ulceration of the gastrointestinal tract
The prognosis for horses diagnosed with colic has improved since Morris Animal Foundation – one of the top funders of equine research – funded its first colic study in the 1960s. However, equine veterinarians and horse owners hope more can be done to improve outcomes for horses suffering from colic.
Recognizing the need for additional investment in this critical health concern, Morris Animal Foundation focused its latest call for equine research proposals on colic. Proposals were received from research teams around the world. After careful deliberation by an international panel of experts, five were selected for funding. The studies approved are:
- Studying intestinal inflammation associated with colic surgery: This project is focused on inflammation and postoperative ileus (POI), a serious and often life-threatening problem common in horses recovering from intestinal surgery. POI is a functional disorder characterized by a slowing of intestinal motility. If inflammation plays a role in POI, this could help veterinarians prevent and treat this potential complication.
- Minimizing postoperative ileus: Thisstudy also is looking at the role of inflammation in postoperative ileus (POI), However this group will focus on different mechanisms of inflammation as a potential treatment target to address this serious complication of colic.
- Understanding risk factors for transport-associated colic: Horses are one of the most well-traveled species in the world, frequently transported by road and air. Unfortunately, many horses develop colic post-transit. Researchers will work with an equine transport service to collect colic data on horses in their care. Researchers hope to find risk factors that can be mitigated to minimize the incidence of colic post-travel and provide recommendations for horses during transportation.
- Teaching An Ounce Of Prevention, A Pound Of Cure For Colic In Working Equids: Throughout South America, working equids (horses, donkeys and mules) are essential for transporting people, produce, fuel and water in rural communities. Many working equid owners live in conditions of poverty, and diseases such as colic not only impact animal welfare, but also the livelihoods of their owners. Lack of education and experience with colic means early signs are not recognized. Limited financial resources and lack of access to veterinary care can lead to ineffective or inappropriate colic treatments. In this project, researchers will co-develop new educational resources and workshops focused on risk factors, clinical signs and treatment of colic. The goal is to prevent and reduce the risk of colic for working equids in the region, a win-win for both animals and their owners.
- Developing a new prognostic test: Unfortunately, no objective tests exist that can reliably predict which horses are most likely to develop complications after surgery. Peritoneal fluid (PF) bathes the abdominal organs, and changes in the PF environment could be an early marker of colic outcome. To explore this theory, researchers will study the PF’s proteome – the complete set of proteins expressed within the fluid – in hopes of identifying specific proteins to distinguish between horses with colic due to strangulating intestinal disease and horses with colic due to non-strangulating intestinal disease, as well as proteins associated with postoperative complications. This pilot study is a first step toward development of an objective stall-side diagnostic test based on PF proteins. If successful, such tests would be valuable tools for equine veterinarians to better diagnose, prognosticate and ultimately treat horses with colic.
Keeping horses healthy is important to both owners and veterinarians. Morris Animal Foundation is excited to see what their funded researchers discover as they begin these new and ambitious projects. Learn more about the Foundation’s equine research projects to continually improve the quality of health and well-being of equids around the world.