Better surgical survival rates improve colic outcomes for horses in study

Researchers looked at short term survival rates among horses admitted to the University of Copenhagen's large animal hospital with colic.
Researchers looked at short term survival rates among horses admitted to the University of Copenhagen’s large animal hospital with colic. Image by Alexas_Fotos

A university veterinary hospital in Denmark has found improving survival rates among horses with colic, mainly because fewer are euthanized during surgery.

Researchers in the University of Copenhagen study looked at the short-term survival rates of horses referred for colic.

Emma Dybkjær and her colleagues, writing in the journal Acta Veterinaria Scandinavia, said up-to-date and hospital-specific knowledge of prognoses for horses with various forms of colic is essential for helping to guide owners’ decisions on costly treatments. It can also be used for assessing the continuous development of standards of care in the hospital.

Their study focused on the outcomes for 1397 horses admitted with colic to the university’s Hospital for Large Animals from 2010 to 2018. They compared the results to a previous colic study at the hospital covering 10 years from 2000 and involving 1588 horses. The authors also compared the results with recent, comparable international studies.

The researchers reported that a total of 1752 horses were admitted with colic during the study period, of which 355 were excluded for reasons such as economic restrictions or immediate euthanasia.

The short-term survival of the remaining 1397 cases was significantly higher, at 83.0%, compared to the previous hospital study, at 76%, and and a recent Dutch study, at 80%.

Medical treatment without surgery was carried out in 77.1% of cases, and surgery in 22.9% of the cases.

Short-term survival for the horses treated medically, without surgery, was 89.7%, compared to the previous hospital study of 87%; while for those treated surgically it was 60.6% compared to 42% in the previous hospital study.

The researchers found that significantly fewer horses were euthanised during surgery, at 17.2%, than in the previous hospital study, at 40%. Furthermore, significantly more horses recovered from surgery – 79.1% versus 56%.

They found that the short-term survival rate of surgically treated horses, at 60.6%, did not differ from other European studies, which ranged from 55 to 62%.

“Short-term survival rates have increased since the previous study at the University Hospital for Large Animals,” they reported, putting most of the improvement down to fewer horses being euthanised during surgery.

“This might be due to improved pre-surgical diagnostic evaluation leading to more rapid decisions about surgery, as well as improved surgical skills and positive attitudes among the surgeons performing intestinal resections,” they wrote.

Overall, survival rates in the study were similar to those found in recent comparable European colic studies.

Discussing their study, the researchers said the owner’s ethical beliefs about animal suffering often influence the decision of whether or not to euthanise.

“These beliefs vary from country to country, which may complicate the comparison of survival rates if these cases are included in survival studies.

“In Israel, for instance, euthanasia is rare due to religious beliefs, while it is more common in Scandinavia.”

In their study, the authors excluded all horses euthanised for reasons other than poor prognosis in order to limit this bias and to obtain results that can be used to give realistic advice to owners.

“Including these cases in an outcome analysis may create a vicious cycle, as the choice to euthanise will lower survival rates, resulting in even more owners choosing to euthanise. Excluding these cases will minimise the effect of the owners’ concerns, thus providing more accurate survival rates.”

Other studies used in their comparison exercise did not exclude these cases, they noted.

The study team comprised Dybkjær, Kirstine Fleng Steffensen, Marie Louise Honoré, Mathias Ankjær Dinesen, Mogens Teken Christophersen and Tina Holberg Pihl.

Dybkjær, E., Steffensen, K.F., Honoré, M.L. et al. Short-term survival rates of 1397 horses referred for colic from 2010 to 2018. Acta Vet Scand 64, 11 (2022).

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here

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