Browsing tag: anaesthetic

Ireland is living in the past: it’s about to become legal for members of public to dock puppies’ tails.

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Tail docking is a illogical, nonsensical form of puppy torture, and it looks set to become legal in Ireland.  The procedure is brutal: a pair of scissors, a sharp knife or a tight ring are used to chop off a young puppy’s tail. There is no anaesthetic, and it clearly hurts a lot (they squeal loudly), but the pups are too small and helpless to do anything about it. The pup above was brought to me for treatment after the amateur tail docking job had resulted in a chronic non-healing wound.

Tail docking has been banned in the UK since 2007: it’s completely illegal in Scotland, and in England and Wales, it’s only allowed for a small number of working dogs or when the procedure is needed for medical purposes under theAnimal Welfare Act 2006 or the Welfare of Animals Act (Northern Ireland) 2011. It’s also illegal to show dogs that had their tails docked after 2007.  The subject has been debated in detail elsewhere, but the evidence is clear: tail docking causes pain to puppies, and it does not reduce the incidence of tail injuries in adult dogs, even in working animals.

Tail docking is also illegal in most European countries: the fact that it has not yet been banned in Ireland is the only reason why Ireland is unable to become the 23rd European state to ratify the Council of Europe’s European Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals. (In fact, the UK is also unable to ratify this convention because of the illogical “working dog” exemption on tail docking in England and Wales).

Until last week, it seemed that tail docking was about to be phased out in Ireland. Suddenly, this has changed.

A new Animal Health and Welfare Act is due to be brought in by the Irish Minister of Agriculture Simon Coveney in the next few weeks. The new law has been carefully drafted in conjunction with veterinary bodies and animal welfare groups, all of whom are strongly anti-docking. The Act specifically prohibits “surgical procedures for cosmetic reasons” and it also bans  ”mutilated” dogs from being exhibited in the show ring. These clauses were introduced to stop old-fashioned and unnecessary procedures such as tail docking.

So far so good. So it was a bombshell when it was made known last week that the Minister intends to allow tail docking by members of the public, by listing it in a Regulation under procedures that may be performed without the use of anaesthetics or pain relief. The other activities under this section are mostly agricultural tasks, such as ear tagging cattle, castrating sheep and removing piglets tails: these have been allowed to permit such traditional aspects of agriculture to continue (even though it can be argued that, logically, they too should be restricted).

The official bodies representing animal welfare in Ireland are incensed at this news: it’s worth reading the open letter that has been written to the Minister by Veterinary Ireland, the ISPCA and Dogs Trust. An online petition has been launched to gather public support against the new Regulation: you can sign it here. The petition was started on 10th November, and already has over 5000 signatures.

It isn’t too late to change the future for Irish puppies: the government must surely be listening to common sense and the voice of the people.

The Kinder Cut – Castration of horses

This is the time of year when people start to look at their cute little foals, and suddenly realise they’re starting to grow up fast… As a result, it’s also when we start to get phone calls from people to talk about gelding them.

If you are considering getting a colt gelded (“cut”), my advice would be to contact your vet, who will be able to advise you on the best approach in your particlar circumstances. However, I’m going to try and go through some of the commoner questions below, so you’ve got some basic information on the decisions to be made, the procedure, and what you’ll need to consider.

The first question, of course, is whether or not to get him cut. It’s an important decision, so these are my thoughts…
The majority of male horses are castrated, and for very good reason – very few people have the facilities, the time, or the inclination to manage an entire stallion. The old adage had it absolutely right – “You can tell a gelding, you can ask a mare, but you discuss the matter with a stallion”. Although there are some superbly well mannered stallions out there, it takes years of expert training – and in my experience they’re almost always more “bolshie” than a gelding, and much less forgiving of any mistakes. They are also much more easily distracted (e.g. by a passing mare), and prone to fighting.
Does this mean you can’t train them well and keep them happily and healthily? No, of course not – but it’s a lot harder. The majority of stallions can’t be kept in groups because of the husbandry regimes on most yards, so have to live on their own. That’s not good for their mental health, or their owners and riders! If someone has the knowledge and facilities to bring up a stallion, I don’t have a problem with that, and I wish them luck, but I’ve seen too many bored, frustrated and borderline dangerous stallions who haven’t been brought up correctly, and remain a liability.
Geldings, however, can be kept in groups, can mix with other horses, and are less likely to lose the plot or throw a temper tantrum. They also don’t present you with unexpected foals in your competing mares…
If you decide not to have him done, you need to be sure that you’re doing it for the right reasons. The majority of horses are not necessarily good breeding material – you need to take an objective look at him and decide if breeding from him is actually going to benefit the breed. If you’re avoiding doing it just because you don’t like the thought of the procedure, you’ll need to think long and hard about whether thats in his best interest – or yours.

If you are getting your colt cut, the next decision is when to do it. There are two major concerns – the time of year, and the maturity of the colt. In terms of time of year, it’s best to do it when the weather is cold enough to prevent flies from infecting surgical wounds. Ideally, then, this would be in late autumn or early spring, but gelding him in winter is perfectly acceptable if the facilities are suitable. Regarding the colt’s maturity, there is an upper and a lower limit.
The lower limit is the most rigid – except in an emergency (e.g. a strangulating hernia), I would never geld a colt until both testes had descended into the scrotum – because it’s really important to make sure you’ve got both! This usually happens between 6 and 12 months old, but it is a bit variable. In addition, the colt has to be strong and mature enough to survive the surgery, although with modern anaesthetics this isn’t as much of an issue as it used to be. The upper limit is much more flexible. Stallions into their twenties are castrated fairly commonly, but once they’ve passed through puberty, a lot of the stallionish behaviour is learnt, and won’t be reversed by castration, including some forms of aggression, and mounting behaviour. Sometimes, people like to wait until a colt is 3 or 4 years old before gelding, but I think that often even that is too late – although it does allow the colt to develop more muscle, he’ll also be developing stallion traits. In addition, the younger the colt, the smaller the testicles, and the smaller the testicles, the lower the risk of bleeding during the op. During puberty, the testicles increase dramatically in size, and as a result, their blood supply increases accordingly; the bigger spermatic artery in a post-pubescent colt is much harder to control bleeding from.
As a general rule (and it’s a VERY rough rule of thumb!) I’d normally look to geld between a year and eighteen months old. That said, there are a lot of exceptions – I once had to sort out the castration of a four month old colt because he’d started mounting his mother… There are also a number of opinions about weaning – before, after or at the same time? In this case, I think it depends entirely on the colt in question, and it’s an area (one of many) where I’ll usually defer to the owner’s judgement.

Before you go any further, its a good idea to get the colt thoroughly checked out – both testicles need to be present and easily palpable; if one is “shy” and difficult to find, I usually recommend checking again in a month or so. If it’s still inaccessible, the colt may be a cryptorchid (i.e. a rig, with one undescended testis). These colts should ALWAYS be castrated, and have to be done under general anaesthetic, if possible in a clinic. This is because the retained testicle, being kept at an abnormally high temperature inside the body, is more likely to become cancerous. Also, the defect may be genetic – and if so, he’ll risk passing it on to his offspring.

Once you’ve decided when, there’s another important decision you and your vet will have to make, and that’s the details of the procedure. Basically, there are two factors to decide – firstly, do you want him done “at home or away”? Secondly (a related point), do you do him under standing sedation or down under a general anaesthetic?
Regarding the location, it depends on your practice’s policy and facilities. Many practices now offer castration at the clinic, but the majority of people still choose to have the op done at home. The advantage of having it done at a clinic is that the procedure can be cleaner, and all the equipment and apparatus is there; in addition, many practices charge a callout fee for coming to the yard. However, that’s offset by the fact that you’ll have to transport the colt to the clinic; in addition, I think it’s usually less stressful for the procedure to be done at home, assuming the appropriate facilities are available. Exactly what facilities you need depend on the technique that’s going to be used.

There’s a lot of debate as to this decision, and some frankly ridiculous comments from some badly-informed people out there. I’m going to talk through the options and the pros and cons.
The two main options that you’ll need to think about for the procedure itself are whether to have the op done under standing sedation or general anaesthetic. In some cases, the decision is easy – miniature horses and small shetlands should almost never be done standing, because they’re too small for the surgeon to get good access and control the site, for example. Draft breeds are at a higher risk of eventration (see below, when abdominal contents escape through the castration wound), and so need a different surgical technique, which may be easier under a general; and fully adult stallions bleed more so may need better surgical access – again, a general anaesthetic makes this easier. However, most colts can be done either way, so you and the vet need to decide which you prefer.

Under standing sedation, the colt is given intravenous sedatives (see my blog on sedatives) so he becomes very dopey. He will continue standing up, but his head will drop, and he is likely to adopt a wide-based stance (which makes surgical access easier!). However, its important to remember that he is still to some extent aware of what’s going on, so local anaesthetic is injected into the testicles (perhaps 20ml into each one, plus some under the skin of the scrotum) or into the spermatic cord (although I find that that’s easier said than done, with most colts pulling the testicles up tight to the body wall so the cord is difficult to access from outside) to numb the area. The castration is then performed with the vet working from standing beside the horse. This approach avoids the risk of a general anaesthetic, and means the horse will recover from the sedative faster. However, the degree of sedation achieved is variable, and some colts appear to be more aware of the procedure than one would like, no matter how much sedative you pour into them. There’s also a MUCH higher risk of the vet or their assistants being injured – unsurprisingly, some colts object violently if they realise what you’re doing…
In addition, the surgical access is poorer (the vet is having to work upside down, and largely by feel) so if there is a complication, it is harder to control it.

Under a general anaesthetic approach, the colt is sedated and then given an injection of a general anaesthetic. He’ll become very sleepy, and then lie down. Once he’s out, an assistant lifts up the top leg, giving the surgeon access. The disadvantage is that most vets will only do a GA on a horse if there’s another vet along to monitor the anaesthetic, which may affect the cost. In addition, a GA is a risk in its own right – one study suggested that the average mortality rate from GA in a horse is 1% (although this includes colics and emergency operations – the risk for a young, healthy colt is much lower). On the other hand, the risk of injury to the vet or assistants is much lower, and the risk of surgical complications is also much reduced, as the surgeon can see exactly what they’re doing.

Is either one definitively better than the other? No. However, it is a decision to take WITH your vet, as they may have a preference that will affect their efficiency. For what its worth, I’ve done geldings both ways, and personally I prefer to do them under general, because its safer for me and everyone else around – and if there was to be a complication, I’ve got a better chance of finding and fixing it at the time.

The procedure itself is pretty much the same whichever way up the horse is. Along with sedation, I give an injection of an anti-inflammatory and painkiller, and antibiotic cover (no procedure done on a yard or in a field can ever be truly sterile, so I’d prefer to make sure there are antibiotics on board when we start). In the past, vets didn’t routinely give painkillers as well as the sedation (which contains a painkilling component), but personally I don’t think its fair not to.

There has historically been quite a mystique about the procedure itself – probably because people are a bit shy to discuss it. As a result, there is sometimes serious confusion – remember, gelding is NOT the same as a vasectomy, and it can’t be reversed… Not even (as apparently happened to a colleague of mine) if the client stops you as you’re about to drive off and, holding up a neatly severed pair of testicles, asks the vet to reattach them because she’s changed her mind…

So, here’s a quick run through the procedure:
The area of the groin is scrubbed with a skin disinfectant, and a final check is made that both testes are accessible. Whichever one is held closer to the body is the one I’ll start with, just in case it is retracted later. I’ll then scrub up so my hands are sterile. Some vets wear gloves, others don’t – I don’t think it really matters as long as they’ve scrubbed thoroughly. Gloves add an additional sterile barrier; but on the other hand they can reduce your feel and grip, so it depends on what the vet is happiest with.
Once the scrotal area is scrubbed, the vet will use a scalpel blade to cut through the skin of the scrotum. There are a couple of different options from here on, but the principle is the same; to cut down through the tissue to the vaginal tunic (the membranes that surround the testis itself) and then gently pull the testicle down and out. In an “open” castration, the tunic will be opened, in a “closed” technique, it gets left intact and the testicle pulled down still inside. Once there’s enough slack in the spermatic cord (containing the blood vessels, nerves etc that supply the testicle), the emasculators are applied across the cord, with or without the tunic, depending on the technique. These are a clever bit of kit that crush the cord, preventing it from bleeding, while at the same time cutting off the testicle itself.
(Quick aside here – I was doing a gelding once and, as is customary, I showed the removed testicle to the owner to show it had been done; he was a teenage lad and he fainted dead away. Interesting ethical problem there – do I try and help the unconscious boy, or do I just keep working on the anaesthatised horse who’ll soon wake up? Fortunately, he recovered on his own before I had to scrub out, but he was pretty green around the gills for the rest of the morning…)
In an older stallion, most vets will put a suture through the cord to ligate the artery, but this increases the risk of infection, so we don’t always put one in if doing an Open procedure. After removing the emasculators, the vet will check closely for bleeding from the stump. If there isn’t any, they’ll repeat the procedure on the other side. If the surgery is taking place in the field, the vet will usually leave the incision open for drainage; closing it seriously increases the risk of post op swelling and infection.

As a note, there is always a bit of bleeding after the operation. The rule of thumb is, if you can count the drops, its fine! There’s also invariably some swelling of the sheath, but again, it isn’t usually anything to worry about. If in any doubt though, you should contact your vet. Your vet will give you instructions for post op care, but the most important thing is to keep the new gelding moving, to reduce the swelling and encourage drainage.

The complications to be aware of are bleeding, eventration, and infection.
bleeding is pretty obvious – some oozing from around the incision is normal, but there shouldn’t be any significant haemorrhage from the stump of the spermatic cord. If there is, or if there’s a lot of blood – call your vet! Uncontrolled bleeding is an emergency that may require a repeat surgery to control it.
eventration, is when abdominal contents prolapse through the inguinal canal, and it’s more common in draft breeds. This is the main reason we’d do a Closed castration, as it ties off the tunic; but it does increase the risk of infection. Eventration usually involves some fatty tissue (the omentum) and although it needs urgent surgical repair, it isn’t usually life threatening. Very occasionally, however, it progresses to evisceration, where loops of intestine come through. This is very serious, but (touch wood) it’s also very rare.
infection is uncommon, and usually responds to antibiotics. In a few unlucky cases, though, a schirrous cord forms, where abscesses form in the canal. These take months of management, and in the end, treatment is usually surgical removal of the infected tissue.

These complications are very rare, and even if they occur, they’re usually fixable, so don’t get scared of the possibility! I only mention them so you’ve got an idea of what to look out for.

The last thing to bear in mind is that the gelding may still show sexual interest for some weeks after castration (at least, if he was before), and may even be fertile for a time: although he can’t make more sperm without testicular tissue, there will still be some “in storage” in the spermatic ducts. I always advise that a newly gelded colt or stallion should be isolated from mares for at least 6 weeks, after which any remaining sperm will have died or been flushed out, and his testosterone levels will have declined to the point where he won’t have any hormonal urges.

The bottom line is this: although it doesn’t seem a nice thing to do, for most colts in most situations, gelding leaves them happier and more content than they would otherwise be as entire stallions.

Sedatives and Sedation in Horses

We routinely sedate horses in practice – after vaccination, it’s probably the most common “routine” job that we do. So, what are we doing? How do the drugs work – and why doesn’t it always happen the same way?

“Sedation – a state of rest or sleep… produced by a sedative drug.”

That’s the dictionary definition, and it makes it sound lovely and simple – give a drug, and the patient goes to sleep. Of course, in reality (as usual with anything equine!) life isn’t that easy…

For those who haven’t seen it before, a sedated horse doesn’t lie down, but their head gets lower and lower, and they may require something to lean on to help them balance. It’s also important to remember that a sedated horse CAN still kick – they’re just much less likely to do so! It often seems that the horse is still more or less aware of what’s going on around them, but they’re too sleepy to care about it. As a result, we’d almost invariably use pain relief and local anaesthetic as well if we’re carrying out a surgical procedure.

There are a wide range of situations in which we like to use sedation. Generally, it’s to make the horse more amenable when something nasty or scary is being done to them. Of course, this varies from horse to horse. There are quite a lot of horses out there that need a sedative before the farrier can trim their feet; and there are others that will allow you to suture up a wound without sedation or even local anaesthetic (not recommended, but occasionally necessary).

Probably the most common reasons we sedate horses for are…

1) Stitching up wounds, to stop the horse wriggling!

2) Tooth rasping, especially when using power rasps and dremels

3) Some surgical operations – for example, many vets prefer to castrate colts under standing sedation, rather than a general anaesthetic. This is because sedation is much safer than a general anaesthetic… On the other hand, the surgery is easier and safer (for the vet, as well as the horse) if the patient is completely “out”, so it comes down to the type of horse and the preference of the vet doing the op.

It’s important to remember that all sedatives temporarily alter the way the horse’s brain and body works, and have a serious impact on the heart and circulatory system. As a result, they’re all prescription-only medicines, and your vet will want to satisfy themselves that the patient doesn’t have any underlying heart problems etc before using them. Overdose of a sedative is rarely fatal in a healthy horse, but it can still be dangerous, especially if there is any underlying illness that makes them less good at maintaining their blood pressure. Its also vitally important to tell your vet the horse’s whole medical history if you’re asking them to give a sedative – there have been cases of horses who were being treated with a (very safe) antibiotic (TMPS); the owner forgot to tell a vet this, and the combination of sedative and this antibiotic has resulted in a heart attack (technically, a fatal arrhythmia).

There are three routes by which we normally give sedation:

1) By syringe or in feed.
This is the slowest, least powerful and least reliable way to sedate a horse, but it has two advantages – you don’t need a vet to come and do it, and you don’t need to get so close to the horse to give it.
The drug most commonly used is ACP, sold as Sedalin or Relaquin paste. Occasionally ACP tablets are used, although there are strict restrictions on when a vet is allowed to prescribe tablets instead of paste. There is a newer drug now available as a syringe, detomidine (sold as Domosedan gel), which is absorbed across the membranes in the mouth so shouldn’t usually be given with food, but does work faster and give better sedation than ACP.

2) By injection into the muscle.
Many injectable sedatives can be given into the muscle – this injection is more reliable than by mouth, but requires much higher doses than if given into the vein (in my experience, you need 4-5 times as much, and it takes about twice as long to work). It’s only usually needed if the horse is too wild or dangerous to get a vein, but it’s quite useful to “take the edge off”, and then I can top up with intravenous sedatives if needed. The other situation where I’ve occasionally used it is when a severely colicing horse has to take a long ride in a box to get to a surgical centre. In these cases, I have sometimes given the driver a preloaded syringe so that if he horse freaks out or goes crazy in transit, they can give it something to calm it down and relieve the pain until they arrive.

3) By intravenous injection.
Intravenous sedation is by far the best option if possible – it works fast (usually 5-10 minutes), you need lower doses, and you get much better sedation than by any other route. This is what I’ll be concentrating on below.

There are three “families” of drugs used to sedate horses:

Acepromazine (ACP).
This is a very “dirty” drug, in that it affects a wide range of body systems. It can only produce mild to moderate sedation on its own, and the effects are very variable between horses. It’s important to remember that once sedation has been achieved; increasing the dose WON’T result in deeper sedation, just more side effects. It also has no painkilling properties.
There are two side effects in particular that we as vets watch out for with ACP. Firstly, it can lead to significant drop in blood pressure, because it makes peripheral blood vessels dilate (this is why it’s sometimes used in laminitis). The second effect is much more interesting – ACP is a mild muscle relacant of some muscle types, so it can be useful in azoturia and choke. There’s one exception though (male readers of a senstive disposition, look away now…): ACP is a very powerful relaxant for the retractor penis muscle. This is the muscle that holds the penis in the sheath, and even low doses of ACP usually lead to male horses “dropping” the penis. This can be useful, but unfortunately in some horses (especially stallions, with a larger and heavier penis than most geldings); the paralysis of the penis can be quite prolonged, which can result in penile trauma. In extreme cases, this can be permanent or lead to gangrene, requiring amputation. Bottom line – if at all possible, avoid using ACP in stallions and entire colts!
ACP does, however, have a place in sedation – when mixed with other drugs, it often prolongs sedation and means that the doses of each part of the combination can be dropped, reducing the risk of side effects.
A quick note on ACP tablets – under the current Veterinary Medicines Cascade laws, it is illegal to use ACP tablets instead of paste in horses unless the vet has a clinical reason (unfortunately, price isn’t considered good enough) to think that they are more appropriate. As a result, if your vet refuses to give you the tablets, they’re not trying to rip you off – they’re just obeying the law.

Opiates
Although opiates on their own are only very weak sedatives in horses, when combined with other drugs they lead to much deeper and smoother sedation than any other drug on its own. The drug usually used is butorphanol, which is a synthetic opiate (it’s a mu/kappa agonist/antagonist related to buprenorphine, for anyone interested) that has a fairly good painkilling effect as well as potentiating sedation from other drugs. Fortunately, it also has very few side effects, although its worth bearing in mind that any other opiates (e.g. Pethidine or Fentanyl) that the horse is given up to about 8 hours later won’t work quite like they’re supposed to, as the butorphanol will partially block their activity.

Alpha-2 Drugs
These really are the mainstay of sedation in horses (and in dogs and cats, for that matter). Alpha-2 drugs act by tricking the body into thinking it’s produced too much adrenaline, so it stops releasing it, resulting in reliable deep sedation. They’re also pretty powerful painkillers.
There are three drugs that are commonly used, with slightly different properties. Detomidine and Romifidine are both fairly long acting drugs (30-40 minutes after i/v use), and when mixed with butorphanol are the standard sedative preparation for intravenous use, or on their own into the muscle. Detomidine is also available in a syringe for oral use.
The third drug is xylaxine; this is a bit different in that it gives milder sedation, and only lasts 20 minutes or so. It’s particularly useful for sedating horses for nerve blocks etc, where in half an hour they need to be completely recovered and able to trot up.

Before I sedate a horse, I always have a good listen to the horse’s heart, and check its pulse and colour to make sure its cardiovasclar system is healthy. I’ll then double check it’s not on any medication, and then give i/v sedation.
I like to use either detomidine or romifidine mixed with butorphanol for routine sedation – I personally prefer detomidine, but that’s probably just because it’s what I “grew up” as a vet using! For longer lasting procedures, or if I want muscle relaxation (especially for dentals where I want the tongue nice and floppy!), I add ACP into the mix.
Dosage is incredibly variable between horses and experience and judgement is more important than all the book learning available. As a rule of thumb, the bigger the horse, the less sedative per kilo of body weight it needs (so Shetlands often need as much as a light hunter). In addition, it depends on temperament – the more highly strung or excited, the more sedatives are needed. The other thing to remember is that apparently identical horses, in the same circumstances, may react very differently – the dose that will have Alf so deep his head’s on the floor will have Brutus untouched, while Charlie is in the “Goldilocks” zone where he’s just right. Of course, it also depends how deep the sedation you want – although personally, I’ve found that if you aim for “light sedation” to start with, you usually end up having to top the horse up halfway through.
Once the injection’s been given, it is VITAL to give the horse time for it to work in a quiet, dim, calm place. If the horse gets excited while you’re waiting for the sedative to kick in, it won’t work well. This is doubly true for oral sedatives, but it applies to injections as well.
During the procedure, its sometimes necessary to top up, which is fine – the great thing about the drugs we use is that they work fast enough i/v that you can monitor their effects more or less in real time. Recovery is usually rapid and uncomplicated, although it’s important not to let the horse eat anything until it’s completely woken up, or it may choke.
Very occasionally, I’ve had a horse that refused to wake up, or went too deep. After my first one, I took to carrying the antidote (Atipamezole, aka Antisedan or Sedistop) with me when I sedated sick or old horses. It’s very expensive, but it works within a minute or two to reverse the effect of alpha-2 drugs – and once they’re reversed, the horse wakes up incredibly fast!

In practice, sedating horses is as much an art as a science, and there’s rarely one “right answer” – it depends on the horse, the circumstances, and what you’re trying to achieve. The main purpose is to allow us to treat your horse effectively and humanely.

If you are worried about any problems with your horse or pony, please talk to your vet or try our Interactive Equine Symptom Guide to help decide what to do next.

Part 3: Surgical Colic

As we saw in the previous part of this series, Medical colics are those which can be managed medically, usually on the yard. However, about 1 in 10 cases of colic require emergency referral to an equine hospital for surgery.

This is what most horse owners are terrified of. The general indicators that a horse has a surgical colic are:

1) Heart rate over 60 that isn’t relieved by injectable painkillers.
2) Dilated loops of small intestine on rectal exam.
3) Positive stomach reflux from the stomach tube.
4) A definite rectal diagnosis of a surgical problem.
5) “Toxic rings” – dark red or purple gums, that indicate that the horse is going into toxic shock.

Of course, it varies between horses, and the vet has to make a judgment call based on all the evidence available.

We also have to talk to the (by now usually frantic) owners about costs. Colic surgery usually costs between £4000 and £5000, but can easily be a lot more. Even if the horse is insured, it is important to check how much the insurance company will cover – there are a couple of companies out there who will only cover part of the costs of emergency surgery. If in doubt, always call your insurer’s helpline.

However, colic surgery is one of the most genuine emergency operations there is – and it can be truly life-saving.

So, what causes a surgical colic? Probably the most common are:

1) Twisted bowel. If a length of bowel twists around itself, it can cut off the circulation. At this point, the gut begins to die, and unless it can be removed by surgery, and quickly, the horse will go into toxic shock and die. This commonly happens in the small intestine or occasionally the colon, but there’s also a condition where the caecum gets turned partially inside out (an intussusception).

2) Small intestinal blockages. Horses rarely eat things that get stuck in the small intestine (although it can happen). More commonly, a really heavy worm burden can simply block up the bowel; with the bowel overfull, the blood supply starts to fail, and the gut, again, can die. I once had a patient who was a little foal with a severe colic; we removed two gallons of worms from her small intestine!

3) Strangulating Lipomas. These are really common in older horses and ponies. A small, benign, fatty tumour forms somewhere in the abdomen, causing no harm at all. However, it grows on a stalk, and eventually, the stalk gets wrapped around a length of gut, cutting off the blood supply… This results in the bowel dying, as if it had twisted. Fortunately, these are usually really simple surgical procedures; unfortunately, older horses and ponies are less likely to be insured for surgery.

There are also a number of medical conditions that can mimic those requiring surgery – particularly peritonitis and anterior (or proximal) enteritis. Horses with these conditions are often referred for possible surgery because it’s very hard for the vet in the field or on the yard to be 100% certain they’re not surgical. I think that most of us would say it makes a lot more sense to have the horse at the hospital, with a surgeon on call, to make the definitive diagnosis, rather than waste time in the stable, and risk having to then decide it needs surgery when it’s still an hour or more away in travelling time from the hospital!

So, what happens when the vet decides that a colic case isn’t suitable for medical management?

Firstly, they’ll talk to you about the options. If a horse isn’t insured, or there’s no money for treatment, it is a perfectly respectable and responsible decision to decide, sadly, to put the horse to sleep rather than prolong its suffering.

Hopefully, of course, that won’t be the case. Once you and the vet have decided that referral is the way forward, your vet will get in contact with a referral hospital. If you’re very lucky, it will be one run by your vet’s practice, but in most cases, it will be a specialist referral hospital. I must say here that not every centre with surgical facilities is able to cope with emergency colic surgery – they need not only to have the facilities (knock-down box, operating theatre, recovery box etc), but also the staff (not only a surgeon, but also enough vets and nurses to take care of your horse in the vital recovery period). Your vet will have a list of suitable referral hospitals – generally, its best to send the horse to the closest one with the shortest transport time, but your vet will be able to advise you.

Making an emergency referral is simple – but only your vet can do it. A referral hospital will not accept referrals from the horse’s owner! Once you’ve made the decision to refer, your vet will call them and speak to the veterinary team on call, who will be available 24/7/365 (when I was part of one such team, we ALWAYS seemed to get our referrals at about 10pm!). They’ll let him or her know what they want done during transport – generally, they’ll describe what painkillers they want given, and what samples they want taken (don’t be surprised if your vet gives you a couple of blood tubes to take up and give to the referral team). In addition, they’ll sometimes ask the vet to put in a stomach tube and tie it in for the journey – this is to prevent the stomach from getting over-full and bursting if there’s an obstruction in the small intestine. Don’t forget your horse’s passport – legally, they do need it even when being rushed to emergency surgery.

Your vet will generally give you directions and a contact number for the hospital, and send you on your way. Remember, they can’t normally go with you, because your horse’s colic, while devastating, is probably only one of several cases they’ll have to deal with.

If there’s a problem (e.g. your horse getting distressed) in transit, call your vet or the referral number you were given – but if at all possible don’t stop unless they tell you to! Remember, you’re on your way to the best equipped help available.

On arrival at the hospital, you can expect to be met by the veterinary and nursing team. Your horse will be rushed to an assessment area, and you’ll probably be given a lot of scary-looking paperwork to sign. Generally, this comes into 2 parts – firstly, you’re signing to give consent for whatever they need to do (and remember, a lot of drugs aren’t technically licensed for use in horses, because the manufacturers haven’t paid for an official license for that drug in horses. It doesn’t mean a drug is dangerous or experimental, it’s probably used on a daily basis by the hospital. You’ll have to sign consent to use unlicensed medication – it’s absolutely routine, and nothing to worry about). Most hospitals will also ask to see your passport – if you haven’t got it, or it isn’t signed to mark the horse as “not intended for human consumption”, legally the hospital can refuse treatment (although they rarely do).

The second set of paperwork you’ll sign is a bit more pedestrian – you’ll be signing to say that you will pay for any treatment!

While you’re contemplating the paperwork, your horse will be undergoing another examination by the veterinary team. This is to establish what’s going on, and what’s changed since your vet examined him back on the yard. They may well repeat some tests – most colic conditions are dynamic (i.e. constantly changing), and sometimes the change is more useful in working out what’s going on than a one-off test. Other tests they may wheel out include ultrasound – the powerful ultrasound systems available in a hospital environment can give the vets a lot more information about what’s going on. The vets will then make a decision about what to do – don’t be disappointed or worried if they don’t rush immediately to surgery! They may decide to try a course of medical treatment first (remember, they don’t have to rush as much as your vet does – if your horse’s situation deteriorates, they can operate at a moment’s notice).

In many cases, however, they will decide to take the horse straight to theatre. If so, you normally won’t be able to follow, so I’m going to describe what happens once you’ve been gently steered in the direction of a waiting room.

To begin with, the horse will have an intravenous catheter fitted, to allow easy access for fluids and drugs. A horse with colic is systemically weakened, so will almost invariably be given intravenous fluids during surgery. He’ll then be given a premed – this is a sedative, designed to make induction into anaesthesia gentler. It will usually contain the drug acepromazine, because the use of this before surgery has been demonstrated to reduce the risks of anaesthetics.

He’ll then be led into a knock-down box: this is a special padded room, designed to make induction of anaesthesia safer. Then he’ll be anaesthetised with an injection containing (usually) a mixture of 2 anaesthetic agents, ketamine (no, it’s not a tranquilizer, it’s an anaesthetic) and diazepam or a similar drug. Shortly after the injection, he’ll go wobbly, and then quickly lie down.

Once he’s asleep, the team will swing into action: a tube will be passed down his throat to help him breathe and he’ll be moved into the operating theatre. While this was going on, the surgeon(s) will have been scrubbing up, ready to start.

Once he’s in theatre and safely ensconced on a well cushioned table (to prevent pressure sores etc), he’ll be put onto anaesthetic gas to keep him asleep.

Colic3 - SurgeryThe surgery involves a long incision down the midline of the belly. The surgeons can then have a good look through all the intestines, to find the problem. This is the exciting, sexy bit, but it’s actually pretty simple in principle: “if in doubt, cut it out”. In other words, removing devitalized (dead) bowel, emptying out anything in the bowel that shouldn’t be there (e.g. a caecal impaction), replacing anything that’s got stuck in the wrong place (e.g. an entrapment) and untwisting anything that’s tied up. There are usually at least 2 surgeons, because one person is needed to hold loops of intestines (and they don’t stay still – sometimes they wriggle around in your arms)! Meanwhile, the anaesthetist will be carefully monitoring all sorts of parameters (heart rate, blood pressure, ECG, reflexes, breathing and blood gasses can all be monitored at many hospitals) and adjusting the anaesthetic and any other drugs to give the safest and most effective anaesthetic.

Once whatever the problem was has been found and (hopefully) sorted out, your horse will be returned to the recovery room. In many ways, this is the most dangerous part of the procedure. Horses are very prone to breaking things when they wake up, so everything is done to keep it as calm and quiet as possible. Sometimes, the veterinary team will help the horse to rise, using hoists and lifts; other times, it works out better to let him get up in his own time. In either case, he will be moved into a padded room, and left in dim light, as quietly as possible, so he wakes up slowly.

Once awake, and steady on his feet, he’ll be moved to an intensive care box; he’ll almost certainly be on a drip to keep him hydrated. At regular intervals through the next 24 hours (or longer) he’ll be checked by vets and nurses. In some cases, the guts don’t start working properly on their own, and medication may be needed to encourage motility (e.g. a lidocaine drip). Although everyone gets excited about the surgery, it is this recovery period that is in many ways the most important in getting a good long-term prognosis.

As time goes on, the vets and nurses will try and tempt the horse to eat – normally, we’ll try and get him eating fresh grass as soon as possible. As soon as he is stable enough and eating on his own, he’ll be sent home – most horses do better in their own home environment, so as soon as they no longer require advanced medical intervention, they can go home. Once home, it’s important that the discharge instructions from the hospital are followed – it can be tempting to try and speed things up, but don’t rush it! Major abdominal surgery takes time to recover from.

Colic is a worrying condition to have to deal with as an owner, especially as it often seems to come out of the blue. However, if you ever have to go through it, I hope that having read these blogs, you’ll have some idea of what’s being done, and why. Remember, our aim as vets is to help your horse and, if at all possible, send him home to you fit and well.

If you are worried your horse or pony may be suffering from colic, talk to your vet, or check the symptoms using our Interactive Equine Symptom Guide to help assess how urgent the problem may be.

Getting ready for an anaesthetic at the vets

At one time or another we all have to face our beloved pets having an anaesthetic which can be a scary process if it’s not properly explained. Fortunately most veterinary practices have a fantastic team of nurses that can help you understand the procedure. (NB. I have used “he” in the article for continuity but this goes for all dogs a

Labrador crop

and cats regardless of gender).

To give you a head start, here are some top tips:

1. The number one golden rule for preparing for an anaesthetic is no food after midnight (this does not apply to rabbits or guinea pigs). Also, some practices may give you an earlier time say nine or ten o’clock but the principle is still the same, basically no midnight feasts and no breakfast. The reason for this is two fold. The main reason is to stop your pet vomiting and potentially inhaling it. This can also prevent nausea on recovery. Another reason is to try and prevent any ‘accidents’ on the operating table which increases the risk of contaminating the surgical environment although to safe guard against this, some practices routinely give enemas and express bladders before surgery. So, while it breaks your heart to tuck in to steak and chips with Fido giving you the big brown eyes treatment console yourself with the knowledge that you are actually acting in his best interests to help minimise the risk of anaesthetic.

2. Give your pet the opportunity to relieve himself before coming into the surgery. Obviously this is easier with dogs but while we advise taking dogs for a walk before coming in we don’t mean a five mile hike on the beach with a swim in the sea, we mean a nice gentle walk around the block to encourage toileting. If you bring your dog in covered in dirt and sea water, you’re increasing the anaesthetic risk as we have to keep him asleep longer while we prep him. (See my previous article about how we prepare your pet for a surgical procedure).

3. Tell the nurse when she is admitting him whether you have noticed any unusual behaviour. Vomiting, diarrhoea, coughing or sneezing can all be indicators of problems and may need to be investigated prior to anaesthesia. Also tell the nurse if your pet is on any medication, when he last had it and bring it with you if you can. This way, if your pet needs to stay in after his operation, they will have everything he needs without adding extra to your bill.

Harvey blanket1. Some pets get a little worried when in a new place so it may be helpful to bring in a jumper of yours or a blanket that smells like home. Be prepared for this to come home dirty! Some animals have accidents on recovery and with some of the larger practices getting through over fifteen loads of washing a day (with different people doing the laundry) it may not be possible to locate your blanket once it has disappeared into the washing room abyss. It does help tremendously if the blanket is labelled with your name. That way, if it does enter the washing room, it can be found again. Eventually. Obviously with smaller practices it’s much easier to keep track of individual items.

1. Give the practice a phone number that you can be contacted on. This is something that has surgeons and nurses tearing their hair out on a regular basis. All too often we’re given a phone number only to call it and hear a message saying that the mobile phone has been switched off or to hang on the end of a ringing phone. The reason behind this is sometimes we need to contact you during surgery because we have found something unusual or that we weren’t expecting and need to gain your consent to a change of procedure. It’s your pet and your decision and we want you to be involved every step of the way but we need to be able to speak to you to do that. I’m not saying you need to be sat by your phone from the minute you drop your pet off but please give a phone number that you or someone who can get hold of you will answer. Or at the very least, a answering machine that you check regularly.

1. Have faith in your veterinary team! If they suggest extra procedures such as intravenous fluids or blood sampling it’s because they think it would benefit your pet. I had one incident where a long haired cat was coming in to be sedated and lion clipped (shaved basically as his hair was matted). As he was over eight years old and hadn’t had a blood test I suggested a basic profile just to check what the liver and kidneys were doing. The blood tests revealed elevated kidney values which meant that there was some degree of kidney disease present. Finding this early meant that we were able to recommend a special diet to help slow the degeneration down (it’s never reversible) and the cat is now more likely to be monitored before he gets too ill. 70% of the kidney needs to be affected before clinical signs appear, wouldn’t you want to know before it gets to that point? Also, if we can see there’s an irregularity before we do the surgery, we can provide additional care to further minimise the risk.

1. Ask questions. We would much rather sit with you and explain away your concerns than have you sit at home or at work worrying. Also, if you are going to search the internet for information about the procedure your pet is having, please use reputable sources such as this one or ones written by the veterinary profession. The last thing you need to be reading is a blog by Joe Smith (fictional) about his one off experience about x, y or z and scaring yourself silly. The whole process is stressful enough, don’t torture yourself!

Indie1. Bring your pet in suitably restrained. A cat needs to be in a cat carrier and a dog needs to be on a lead. A cat wrapped in a towel can easily become dinner for nervous, hungry German Shepherd. Don’t laugh, I’ve seen it happen! Yes this is a minority case but why put your pet at risk? We can’t predict how our pets will react in stressful situations (and coming to the vets certainly counts) so keep everybody safe by having control over your animal. Putting a cat in a carrier usually minimises their stress anyway as they feel safer and more secure and having your dog on a lead means that you can prevent him from bolting out of the door and on to the road.

9. That’s it! You are now fully prepared! Give your pet to the nurse to settle in and walk out the door. That’s actually easier said than done but in order to make this a smooth transition for your pet you need to be calm about it. Animals are very good at picking up stress and will become more worried about the situation the more worried you are. Obviously if your pet is aggressive the nurses may ask you to pop him in his kennel for them but the majority of veterinary professionals are more than capable of handling any type of animal and if you hand them the lead and walk out the door, nine times out of ten the dog will stare out of the door after you for a second or two then follow the nice sounding nurse who is being very enthusiastic and telling him what a good doggie he is through the door to the surgery. Don’t forget that we nurses are masters of cajoling and soothing. We have to work with vets as well after all!

If you are worried about a problem with your pet, please talk to your vet or try our Interactive Symptom Guide to check how urgent the problem may be.

How we prepare your pet for anaesthetic.

Once you relinquish your pet to the green fairies, you may be wondering what actually happens “out the back”.

Well, wonder no more. Firstly we make sure that we have an accurate weight for your pet as this is what we use to calculate the dose of the drugs that we give your pet. Once we have this we settle them in a kennel with nice squishy blankets while we go and get everything prepared.

If you have opted for, or we have recommended, a blood sample before anaesthesia then your pet is taken to a quiet part of the practice where we can safely take the sample. To take the sample, a patch of hair is shaved over the jugular vein which runs down the side of the neck, to one side of the windpipe and a needle is inserted to collect the blood. Most animals tolerate this quite well with the gentle yet firm restraint that we green fairies have down to a fine art. Some animals on the other hand object quite vociferously and may have to have the blood sample taken once they are anaesthetised. Not ideal but better if they are getting too stressed.

Once the results have come back and been received by the veterinary surgeon, they can decide what to pre-med with and whether the use of intravenous fluids is necessary. Intravenous fluids are usually considered if there is any elevation of the liver and kidney enzymes which show that these organs need a little help during anaesthesia as that is where most of the drugs used are metabolised. Some veterinary surgeons also advocate the use of fluid therapy during routine bitch spays as a spay is a fairly major and invasive procedure and fluids help maintain blood pressure and support the body during this procedure.

There are a few ways that we can induce anaesthesia in your pet. One way is to use the anaesthetic gas and get them to breathe the gas in via a mask or an anaesthetic chamber. This way is usually used with smaller creatures such as rabbits, guinea pigs and rats and they fit into the anaesthetic chamber and can have oxygen administered in this way before the gas is turned on.

Another way is to inject an anaesthetic agent called Propofol into the vein and then maintain anaesthesia directly into the airway using an endotracheal tube which is fitted into the windpipe. This is the most commonly used induction for surgeries as induction is quick, Propofol wears off quickly and then the anaesthetic can be controlled with the gas.

The final way is to inject a combination of sedative and tranquilliser drugs into the muscle, usually the lumbar muscle or the quadriceps. This way is usually used for short, less painful and less invasive procedures such as cat castrates where the animal only needs to be asleep for a short period and is reversible with another injection.

If your pet is having surgery, the affected area will have to be shaved and cleaned to maintain the sterility of the site. This is why we advise that dogs are fairly clean when they come in so that we don’t have to spend so much time cleaning them which means they spend less time under anaesthetic.

So, that answers the question of how we prepare your pet for anaesthetic or why he has so many bald patches!

If you are worried about your pet’s surgery please talk to your vet, or check any post op symptoms with our Interactive Symptom Guide to see how urgent the problem may be.

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