How Old Is Too Old?

Veterinarians have made some surprising discoveries concerning older horses and colic surgery.

From the Equine Veterinary Journal

Just like their human counterparts, horses are living longer. Advances in equine health care and nutrition mean that horses are also able to have active, useful lives well into their advanced years. With the increase in longevity comes an increase in the opportunity for colic.

Veterinarians at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine New Bolton Center studied the responses of mature and aged patients presented at the hospital with symptoms of colic and treated surgically for the condition. The goal of the research study was to give owners more accurate information on the likelihood of survival and complications that they might encounter with older horses following colic surgery.

For the purposes of the project, survival rates and post-operative complications of colic patients were studied retrospectively. The sample included 300 geriatric horses, defined as 16-20 years of age, and 300 mature horses, 4-15 years old.

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“Gastrointestinal tract problems and signs of colic are among the most common reasons for admission of geriatric horses to referral hospitals,” says Louise Southwood, assistant professor of emergency medicine and critical care at New Bolton Center. Louise, who is board certified in surgery as well as emergency and critical care, led the study.

“Owners are often concerned that performing surgery on their geriatric horses might not be in the best interest of the horse. We wanted to be able to give them the information with which to make an informed decision.”

While the geriatric horses seemed no more critically ill than their mature counterparts, the odds that their colic was caused by a strangulating small intestinal lesion, a condition that requires surgery, were twice that of the mature horses.

What surprised the research team was that the difference in the survival rates between geriatric and mature horses that underwent such surgery was negligible, 86 and 83 percent, respectively. Similarly, the short-term survival rates for geriatric and mature horses with large intestinal strangulating lesions such as a twisted colon was 78  and 70 percent, respectively, and large intestinal simple obstruction, such as an impaction or displacement, was 80 and 97 percent, respectively.

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These figures reflect pre-discharge data only. The numbers didn’t change significantly if the horses classified as geriatric were 16 years or 20 years of age. Researchers did note, however, that the geriatric horses were more likely to have a short period of loss of appetite following surgery.