When a vet attends a colic case, which clinical signs are most significant as to its seriousness?

Clinical records of colic cases from two big equine practices in Derbyshire and Kent have been carefully analysed to see which clinical signs are real “red flag warnings”. Of more than 940 colic cases attended over a four-year period, 23% turned out to be critical — that is, they needed surgery or intensive hospital treatment. Nearly 20% of cases could not be saved and were eventually euthanased.

All the clinical signs discovered on initial examination were recorded. When outcomes were matched against the first examination findings, three signs turned out to be pretty good indicators that the case was serious and not just a mild spasm or transient bellyache.

The amount of rolling and sweating and the behaviour of the horse was not a good guide to the severity of the case. The more reliable indicators of real trouble were a high heart rate, abnormal colour of the membranes of the eye and mouth, and the absence of bowel sounds in at least one of the four abdominal quadrants where a vet listens with a stethoscope.

Things like internal rectal examination findings, temperature, behaviour and sweating all add to the picture, but if heart rate, membranes and bowel sounds are normal, a colic case is much less likely to be critical.

Ref Horse & Hound; 12 October 2017