Browsing tag: pain killers

The Drugs Don’t Work – Or Do They?

Today I put to sleep a lovely old Collie owned by a lovely man. It was definitely the right decision, the dog was really struggling on his legs and had become very depressed and withdrawn. This is a common scenario and very often the way that arthritic pets come to their end. In fact, a very similar thing happened to our beloved family Labrador, Molly, a few years ago and although she was still trying to get about and clearly happy to be with us, she was obviously in a lot of pain which could no longer be controlled. Euthanasia in these situations is a true kindness and although still desperately upsetting, is by far the best thing for the pet.

However, just as I was discussing the euthanasia of this dog with his owner, he said something that stopped me in my tracks.

‘Well, we did try him on some of your arthritis medication a few months ago but to be honest it didn’t seem to be doing anything more than the Asprin I was giving him, so we stopped it’

Now, at this stage in the process there was no point in me making any comment on this statement (or my thoughts on giving pets human medications!) and you may think it sounds like quite a reasonable thing to say but to be honest, I really had to bite my tongue.

Arthritis is a very common problem in older pets but it is also very under-diagnosed because the signs can be difficult to spot, mainly because our animals are so stoical in the face of chronic pain. Even just a bit of stiffness after rest can indicate a significant problem. The medications we have to treat it are extremely effective but often, and especially in the older pets with more advanced arthritis, just one drug on it’s own doesn’t completely combat the problem and they need a combination of medicines to really keep them comfortable. (Anyone with an older relative will probably be familiar with this concept; my granny seems to be on hundreds of tablets!)

Our darling Molly was practically rattling in her last few months I had her on so many medications and supplements These kept her comfortable but eventually, they could no longer control her pain and give her the strength to get around, so the kindest thing was to let her go.

My message is, if you have an older pet, firstly, don’t assume that them slowing down and stiffening up is a ‘normal’ part of aging (well, in a way it is but that doesn’t mean we can’t do something about it!) and if the medicines your vet gives you don’t make much difference at first, don’t assume that that is because there isn’t a problem or that nothing else can be done, it may just be they need different tablets or combination therapy to give them their bounce back! This is far preferable to leaving them to struggle in silence and although, in the end, their arthritis may mean they need to be put to sleep, it will certainly give them more time and mean their final months with you are pain free and comfortable.

And finally, please don’t give your pets ANY human medications without talking to your vet about it first. Drugs often work very differently in animals than they do in people and some can be actually harmful.

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.

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.

Colic: Part 2: Medical Colics

In my last piece, I looked at how the vet will examine a horse with colic. Following this, and using all the information from the history and workup, he or she has to decide if the colic is Medical or Surgical. The terms are more or less self-explanatory: a medical colic can be managed with drugs, while a surgical colic needs emergency surgery.

As a rule of thumb, 9/10 colics are medical, and can almost always be managed on the yard.

So, here are the common causes of colic that we see in the UK1 :

1) Spasmodic Colic. This is probably the commonest, and perhaps the least understood; I estimate about 80% of Medical colics are Spasmodic. Spasmodic colic can be caused by a stressful event, mild dehydration, or be genuinely idiopathic (i.e. we don’t know what causes it!). It can also be caused by severe tapeworm burdens. In a Spasmodic Colic, a section of the gut goes into a spasm, preventing anything from moving past it. It can be acutely painful, but usually responds really well to management with drugs. For any horse that has two or more bouts of spasmodic colic, I’d always recommend a tapeworm blood test to make sure it isn’t part of the problem!

2) Impaction Colic. This is more common in some management systems – it is pretty rare, for example, in horses who live on grass. In these cases, the food in the large intestine dries out a bit too much, and turns into a putty-like material. It then gets stuck, typically at one of the 180- degree turns in the Large Colon. It’s also strongly associated with moderate dehydration – as a horse gets dehydrated, he will move water out of the gut in order to keep up his circulating blood volume. This is a clever trick, meaning a horse can survive levels of dehydration that would kill a human. However, if the water isn’t replaced, and he’s been eating dry hay, his gut contents can become so dry they cause an impaction. This is why, many years ago, bran mash and Epsom salts were fed after hard work – both are good ways of rehydrating the colon and Caecum contents.

3) Gut displacements and entraptions. These are a bit of a mixture – some are medical, some are surgical, some look surgical but aren’t, and some can be fixed medically but keep coming back so surgery is eventually needed. What many people don’t realise is that the guts are in constant motion. Occasionally, a loop of intestine goes “wandering around” inside the abdomen, and gets stuck behind something else (for example, into a little gap between the spleen and the kidney). These can often only be diagnosed by rectal exam, and can feel really confusing, where nothing seems to be exactly where it should be! Each case has to be treated on its merits, and many can be resolved by lunging – presumably because jiggling everything around helps the intestines to fall back into their proper places! Personally, however, my inclination is generally to refer the horse as a possible surgical case, because it’s amazing how often a trip in the box fixes a displacement or entraption. Of course, if they can’t be rapidly resolved, they need to have surgery to put everything back, before any permanent damage is done.

4) Sand colic – I’ve only rarely seen these; they’re normally caused by the horse drinking from sandy water. Over time, sand builds up in the intestines, causing irritation and sometimes an impaction. Management usually revolves around maintaining gut motion with laxatives and pain relief; however, surgery is sometimes needed to evacuate the sand and debris from the gut.

5) Inflammatory diseases, e.g. peritonitis or anterior enteritis. I’m including these here because they’re not strictly surgical. However, they can be really hard to differentiate from surgical cases, and they’re usually only diagnosed after referral, with the advanced techniques available at a referral hospital.

6) Other medical causes, e.g. diarrhoea, or stomach ulcers, can also cause a “Medical” colic; however, these cases require the underlying disease to be treated, at which point the colic symptoms will resolve themselves.

Treatment for medical colics is focused around pain relief and maintaining hydration. Spasmodic colics especially respond very well to a mixture of hyoscine and a pain-killer, which relaxes the spasming gut segment, allowing normal gut movement to be re-established.

Using a painkiller (e.g. injectable bute) can also be a really useful diagnostic test for whether a horse needs surgery – one of the standard guidelines is that a horse with a heart rate over 60 beats per minutes, 30 minutes after intravenous bute, is usually a surgical case. The other painkiller (flunixin meglumine) is almost never used, unless surgery is definitely not an option. This is because it is too powerful! Even horses with dead bowel can look bright, healthy and well, until the flunixin wears off. At that point, they crash, and are often too far gone to be saved.

Equipment for the medical treatment of colic

Equipment for the medical treatment of colic

For impactions, rehydrating the gut contents is vital, but pain relief is also really important. In these cases, Epsom salts and water by stomach tube are really useful. There is some controversy over the use of liquid paraffin in impaction colics. If the horse later has to go to surgery, the presence of liquid paraffin in the gut can cause major headaches for the surgeons; on the other hand, it can be a marvellous lubricant to help move things along. Personally, I tend to give any impaction colic a bucket by stomach tube containing a mixture of water, electrolytes and Epsom salts; and if I’m sure it’s not surgical, I’ll add in a litre or two of liquid paraffin as well. Liquid paraffin is horrible stuff to work with, and if all you’ve got to give it with is cold water, it’s not easy to mix in; I like to mix the water and electrolyte tablets or sachets together first in a bucket, then add the paraffin.

The tube is passed down the nose and (hopefully first time!) into the gullet (if it goes into the wind pipe, start again…), and down all the way into the stomach. To check it’s in the right place, I always feel for it passing down the throat, listen for air moving as the horse breathes, and then suck on it to see if I get lots of air back (means I’m in the airways) or nothing (means I’m in the gullet) or, worst of all, a mouthful of stomach contents. This means the tube is in the stomach, which is great, but it tastes truly vile! Once I’ve carried out all those tests, I’ll pour in a tiny amount of clean water, just to be sure – if the horse coughs, it means the tube is in the windpipe despite all my tests, but it’s not the disaster it would be if I’d poured in a couple of gallons of liquid…

To get this lot into a horse, some people use stirrup pumps – they’re a bit like bicycle pumps, and attach to the end of the stomach tube. This is used to pump fluid from the bucket down the tube – they’re great if you’ve got them, although you have to be careful not to overfill the stomach. However, most of us still use syphons and funnels. The tallest person present (usually me…) attaches a funnel to the top of the tube, then fills the funnel from the bucket. They then hold the funnel as high as they can, so the liquid runs down the tube into the horse’s stomach. You then repeat this until either the bucket is empty or the funnel stops running, which normally means the stomach is full. It’s messy, and can be physically pretty hard work, but it’s a vital part of treating an impaction colic. Personally, I quite often use it to rehydrate the gut of any severe medical colic, because anything that causes gut stasis can lead to a secondary impaction if you’re not careful.

I’d normally treat a definitely diagnosed impaction with injectable bute for pain relief. There is some evidence to suggest that the use of anti-spasm drugs like Buscopan can help to encourage normal gut action, even though they are designed to work as gut relaxants, but I think that particular debate is still open.

To maintain hydration, some vets also like to start a drip line for intravenous fluids. This won’t help the gut (any excess fluid will be excreted by the kidneys before it gets there), but it can help to support the circulation of the horse. Personally, my thinking is that most colics that are so severely dehydrated that they need a drip are either surgical or have another, underlying disease; however, there are always exceptions!

Chronic, ongoing colics can be a nightmare to manage – they’re typically low grade, spasmodic colics, or mild impactions. In these cases, a more thorough examination (including blood tests) is indicated, to try and rule out any underlying disease. Chronic impaction problems tend to be management related, and can usually be resolved with minor tweaks to management. However, your vet will often want to check your horse’s teeth – this is because dental problems can result in poorly chewed food, which can make impactions more likely.

My experience with the chronic spasmodic colics is that if there’s no other underlying cause found, they can occasionally respond nicely to a course of probiotics. I had an incredibly frustrating case once of a horse that had repeated bouts of colic, that we never got to the bottom of. I was being called out every few weeks (and the yard was nearly thirty miles from the practice, which made each visit something of a nightmare!). Eventually I suggested we try a month’s course of probiotics… and the next time I saw the horse was nine months later for annual vaccination. Any further colic episodes, I asked? No, they replied – nothing since we started the probiotics. Although it isn’t a cure-all, it can apparently help in some cases!

Of course, not all colics are medical – about 10% require surgical management. In the third and final piece of this series, I will look at the indications for surgery, the types of colic needing surgery, and then I’ll go through what happens when your horse is referred to an equine hospital for emergency surgery.

1 This is based on my clinical experience in the Midlands, Wales and the South West of England. In some parts of the country, other causes will be more common – for example, on the South Coast, Sand Colic is more common. However, it seems to be fairly rare in most areas, so I’m not going to cover it in great detail.

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.

Looking after the Older Horse

When I was training as a vet, a 20 year old horse was considered really quite old. Now, however, I regularly find myself working with healthy horses in their late twenties and thirties – even a few that go on into their forties!

That said, horses don’t age uniformly – one may be sprightly and fit at 30, while her paddock mate is really feeling his age at 20, so there’s a lot of variation. The challenge is maintaining them at the best quality of life for as long as possible.

To do so, we need to consider three things:

• Work and exercise
• Preventative health (worming, dental care etc)
• Disease management and medication

I’ll deal with these in sequence, although really they are of course all interconnected.

Work and Exercise

PerryI’d like to introduce Perry, a horse I’ve known for many, many years. Born in 1986, by 2002 Perry was a successful Eventer, competing on the Affiliated circuit, and usually well up in the places. However, by then he was starting to slow up a bit, and his then-owner decided it was time to reduce his workload. He was struggling in particular with the dressage and show jumping, so they sold him on to a friend of mine as a Pony Club horse for Tetrathlon. All he had to do was carry his (fairly novice) rider round a cross country course – the phase he enjoyed the most anyway. Relieved of the need to work in an outline, or in collection, he flourished at Tetrathlon, going on to compete at the National Championships.
Of course, in time, his low-grade arthritis (which I’ll talk about more later) meant that he was struggling with the cross country requirements, and he moved into a semi-retirement as a hack. He’d seen it all, done it all, and was as close to 100% in traffic, tractors and low flying aircraft as any horse could be.
For most horses, as long as they can work, they want to – generally (and there are always exceptions!), it isn’t in a horse’s best interests to take him out of work one day and retire him to a field. A gradual wind-down over several years is kinder, and helps to keep him interested and alert.
So, by changing career, Perry had an extra five years of competition, and then many more years of useful work – simply because his various owners were wise enough not to over face him, but to play to his strengths.

Preventative Health

I’ve talked before about the importance of regular dental work – in the older horse, it is doubly important. As the horse ages, his teeth undergo a number of changes. Although it appears that teeth grow constantly, that is in fact an illusion – the adult teeth are pretty much a fixed length, but most of the tooth is hidden away within the gums (the reserve crown). As the tooth is worn down by chewing, more of this reserve is extruded (which is, by the way, the basis of ageing horses by dentition). However, sooner or later, this reserve is expended, and the teeth “cup out”, becoming small, loosely held, concave structures, of limited use for chewing. Good, regular dental care can help delay the onset, and can help the horse to manage as the teeth cup out. Remember, as long as there are a few pairs of teeth in occlusion (i.e. Facing each other), the horse can still chew, he’ll just be very slow about it! In my experience, teeth generally start to cup out about 30-35 years of age, but it depends on their dental history – more use and wear and tear means the teeth are ground down faster.
Worming is also inceasingly important in the older horse, simply because although they may have higher immunity to worms (this is still debated, but does seem likely), they also have less reserves to cope if they have a heavy infestation. The spring is a particularly risky time, as sometimes large numbers of small redworms can emerge all at once, causing massive gut wall damage. It is important to make sure that at some point over the winter, you use a wormer that is active against hibernating (hypobiotic) worm larvae – currently, the only wormers on the market that have this activity are a full 5 day course of Panacur, and (reportedly) Equest.

Foot care is always important, as older horses can suffer some terrible hoof capsule problems if left untreated.

I always recommend that people keep up vaccinating their horses, even if they’re not competing or going out. Equine influenza probably isn’t essential in a stay-at-home horse or pony (although they can still contract it if they’re in contact with a younger friend who does go out and do), but Tetanus vaccination is essential. Just because a horse is old doesn’t mean you can stop vaccinating, because tetanus kills horses of any age just as easily. It’s also a really useful opportunity to have a general “MOT” and get your vet to check the horse over thoroughly, to detect and problems before they become too serious.

Disease Management

Although many horses lead a long and healthy life, the probability is that as they enter old age, they will suffer from one or more “chronic diseases”. These are generally low-level conditions, and in the older horse are usually manageable rather than curable. Probably the most common are arthritis and Cushing’s disease, but malabsorbtion diseases and some tumours aren’t that uncommon either.

The key factor is managing the disease in such a way that the horse doesn’t suffer from the symptoms, and is able to keep up as much work as possible, for as long as possible.

Arthritis is perhaps the commonest condition of older horses, and those that aren’t so old. In most cases, it is due to simple wear and tear on the joint surfaces. The harder a horse has worked, the more rapid the onset of arthritic changes. It’s often the case that, initially, a horse will have trouble working in an outline, and perhaps with show jumps, but hacking and cross country, with it’s more open jumping style, is less of a problem. This of course was exactly the case with Perry. Managing arthritis is a lot more than just monitoring exercise, however – nowadays, we no longer need to just accept “a bit of stiffness” in the older horse. It’s often best to use several different strategies. I generally recommend a combination of joint supplementation (feed supplements such as Cosequin and Newmarket Joint Supplement are the most popular, while injectables like Adequan are more expensive but possibly more effective) with analgesics (bute and/or Danilon, usually) as required. Although painkillers like bute don’t address the underlying disease, they reduce the inflammation and associated pain. Although there can be side effects, it really isn’t fair to put a horse through the pain and discomfort of arthritis without some pain relief; if side effects are a particular concern, Danilon has a much lower risk, although it seems to be a little less effective. Its usually best to start out using bute only as required, and then build up the dose as necessary. Perry, for example, started using bute about 10 years ago, but just a sachet or so immediately after a competition. As he’s got older, he uses more, and at the moment he’s on an average of 4-5 sachets a week – enough to keep him comfortable (and galloping round his paddock like a yearling!).

Cushing’s disease (hyperadrenocorticism) is most common in older horses, and is caused by a micro-tumour in the pituitary gland. This results in an excess of circulating cortisol (a stress hormone), that causes the characteristic symptoms of abnormal fat pads (typically over the eyes and as saddle-packs), excessive drinking and urination, and increasing susceptibility to minor infections and laminitis. Ironically, the “classic” shaggy coat of the Cushingoid horse isn’t entirely due to cortisol – the presence of a tumour in the pituitary causes a malfunction in the part of the brain that controls body temperature, causing retention of a winter coat for longer. Cushing’s isn’t curable in horses, but symptoms can be partially controlled by management (regular clipping, diet and exercise control and remedial shoeing), or largely eliminated with some medications – Cyproheptadine (Periactin) may be of some use; however, Pergolide (Prascend) is highly effective, and is licensed for the treatment of Cushing’s.

Gut problems of one sort or another are also more common in older horses – these may be malabsorbtion issues, caused by thickening of the gut wall, or an increased susceptibility to colic. This may be due to a diffuse Lymphoma (a cancer of the white blood cells) which is the commonest tumour of older horses. In these cases, the key is to feed a highly digestible, high feed value ration, possibly with a probiotic to enhance digestion.

Tooth loss is also a problem in the older horse – as I discussed earlier, eventually the teeth “cup out”, at which point there’s little more that can be done, dentally. The next phase is that the tooth falls out, leaving naked gums. I remember once doing a regular tooth rasping on a 38 year old mare – I put a hand in to have a feel around, and four teeth fell out in my palm… (she actually did better once the teeth were out than she had in months!). An edentulous (toothless) horse needs a soft, ultra-high fibre diet; typically a mash made from fibre pellets or pencils. Horses can live healthily for quite some time on such a diet – however, once your horse has reached this stage, it is probably time to consider how long you can fairly keep him going.

If you can stay on top of all these points, you have every chance of keeping your older horse going for a long, healthy life – as Perry has had, and indeed continues to have.

If you are worried about any symptoms your horse or pony is showing, please talk to your vet or check how urgent the problem may be by using our Interactive Equine Symptom Guide written by expert equine vets.

Could Carprodyl Kill your Dog?

The headline in today’s Daily Mail is typically attention-grabbing: “Could the drug that cost this beloved pet its life
kill YOUR dog too?” The article tells the sad story of a thirteen year old Labrador who died after taking pain-relieving
medication prescribed by her vet. There’s no doubt that many owners of elderly, arthritis-ridden dogs will be rushing to
their vets this week to find out if their own pets are at risk of the same fate.
So what is this drug? Why do vets prescribe medicine which may risk such a severe reaction? And when they do use it,
why don’t they tell owners about the potential dangers?
First, the medication was Carprodyl, a generic form of a chemical called carprofen, which is part of a group of drugs
known as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS). Carprofen has become perhaps the most widely used pain
relieving medication used in veterinary medicine since it was launched as “Rimadyl” by Pfizer, around fifteen years
ago. The patent on the chemical has now lapsed, so a wide range of cheaper generic alternatives have become available.
Most vet clinics in the UK are likely to sell some version of the product.
Second, why do vets prescribe it? Simply put, because it’s the most effective way of treating arthritis in dogs. Many
millions of older animals have been given extra, pain-free life thanks to this type of medication. Three years ago, a
major review was published in the Vet Record, comparing the wide range of treatments available to help dogs with
the common, painful, debilitating problem of arthritis. The review gathered together the results of research papers
published between 1985 and 2007, attempting to derive the best science-based opinion of the best treatment method.
The conclusion? There was strong evidence that carprofen and two other commonly used drugs from the same group
were “effective in moderating the clinical signs of osteoarthritis”. There was only weak or moderate evidence that other
treatments were effective. The conclusion for any vet reading this paper was clear: carprofen and other similar drugs are
the most effective way of helping animals with arthritis.
Obviously, an effective drug needs to be safe, so what about those risks? While it’s true that all drugs in this group can
have undesirable and potentially life threatening consequences, the incidence is very low. The most common side effect
is gastric irritation: affected dogs suffer from gastroenteritis which usually resolves when the medication is stopped.
Much more rarely, there’s a very low risk of kidney failure associated with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. The
cause of this is complicated: it’s more common in geriatric patients suffering from underlying heart, kidney or liver
disease, but it can seem to happen in a random fashion. To minimise this risk, vets may suggest blood or urine tests
before starting a dog onto anti-arthritis medication. Such tests don’t completely remove the small risk, and they add
significantly to the cost of treatment for a pet, so they aren’t always done.
So finally, why don’t vets always tell owners about the potential dangers of such medication? There’s a lot of variation
in what happens here: some vets do take the time to tell owners about every possible side effect of every drug that’s
used. The problem with this approach is that it’s time consuming, leading to longer (and more expensive) consultations
for owners. Most owners don’t particularly want to hear a long list of potential side effects that are unlikely to happen,
and they’re happy to trust that the vet, on balance, feels that the medication is most appropriate having taken all the risks
and benefits into account.
Vets may also feel that detailed listings of potential adverse reactions may lead to unnecessary worrying for an owner,
so they just mention the most common side effects (“stop the tablets and let me know if she gets an upset stomach”).
Sometimes a compromise may be to hand out the package insert with the tablets: the owner can then read the full list of
possible complications if they so wish (and if they have a magnifying glass).
I feel very sorry for the owners of any animal that suffers the consequences of a serious adverse reaction to medication.
There’s no easy answer here, but there’s a simple message: if you want to know about potential side effects of any drug,
ask your vet. We’re happy to tell you if you’re happy to listen. It’s likely that the same treatment decision will still
be made, but at least, in the rare instance of a severe reaction, you won’t have that awful sense of unfairness that you
weren’t told about the risk.

The headline in today’s Daily Mail is typically attention-grabbing: “Could the drug that cost this beloved pet its life kill YOUR dog too?” The article tells the sad story of a thirteen year old Labrador who died after taking pain-relieving medication prescribed by her vet. There’s no doubt that many owners of elderly, arthritis-ridden dogs will be rushing to their vets this week to find out if their own pets are at risk of the same fate.

So what is this drug? Why do vets prescribe medicine which may risk such a severe reaction? And when they do use it, why don’t they tell owners about the potential dangers?

First, the medication was Carprodyl, a generic form of a chemical called carprofen, which is part of a group of drugs known as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS). Carprofen has become perhaps the most widely used pain relieving medication used in veterinary medicine since it was launched as “Rimadyl” by Pfizer, around fifteen years ago. The patent on the chemical has now lapsed, so a wide range of cheaper generic alternatives have become available. Most vet clinics in the UK are likely to sell some version of the product.

Second, why do vets prescribe it? Simply put, because it’s the most effective way of treating arthritis in dogs. Many millions of older animals have been given extra, pain-free life thanks to this type of medication. Three years ago, a major review was published in the Vet Record, comparing the wide range of treatments available to help dogs with the common, painful, debilitating problem of arthritis. The review gathered together the results of research papers published between 1985 and 2007, attempting to derive the best science-based opinion of the best treatment method. The conclusion? There was strong evidence that carprofen and two other commonly used drugs from the same group were “effective in moderating the clinical signs of osteoarthritis”. There was only weak or moderate evidence that other treatments were effective. The conclusion for any vet reading this paper was clear: carprofen and other similar drugs are the most effective way of helping animals with arthritis.

Obviously, an effective drug needs to be safe, so what about those risks? While it’s true that all drugs in this group can have undesirable and potentially life threatening consequences, the incidence is very low. The most common side effect is gastric irritation: affected dogs suffer from gastroenteritis which usually resolves when the medication is stopped. Much more rarely, there’s a very low risk of kidney failure associated with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. The cause of this is complicated: it’s more common in geriatric patients suffering from underlying heart, kidney or liver disease, but it can seem to happen in a random fashion. To minimise this risk, vets may suggest blood or urine tests before starting a dog onto anti-arthritis medication. Such tests don’t completely remove the small risk, and they add significantly to the cost of treatment for a pet, so they aren’t always done.

So finally, why don’t vets always tell owners about the potential dangers of such medication? There’s a lot of variation in what happens here: some vets do take the time to tell owners about every possible side effect of every drug that’s used. The problem with this approach is that it’s time consuming, leading to longer (and more expensive) consultations for owners. Most owners don’t particularly want to hear a long list of potential side effects that are unlikely to happen, and they’re happy to trust that the vet, on balance, feels that the medication is most appropriate having taken all the risks and benefits into account.

Vets may also feel that detailed listings of potential adverse reactions may lead to unnecessary worrying for an owner, so they just mention the most common side effects (“stop the tablets and let me know if she gets an upset stomach”).

Sometimes a compromise may be to hand out the package insert with the tablets: the owner can then read the full list of possible complications if they so wish (and if they have a magnifying glass).

I  feel very sorry for the owners of any animal that suffers the consequences of a serious adverse reaction to medication. There’s no easy answer here, but there’s a simple message: if you want to know about potential side effects of any drug, ask your vet.  We’re happy to tell you if you’re happy to listen. It’s likely that the same treatment decision will still be made, but at least, in the rare instance of a severe reaction, you won’t have that awful sense of unfairness that you weren’t told about the risk.

If you are concerned that your dog is ill or sick please use our interactive dog symptom guide to find out what you should do

How can you tell if your pet is in pain?

Domino-sleeping
It seems a simple enough task, to be able to tell when your pet is in pain but actually it can be a lot harder than you think. Animals have been programmed over millions of years of evolution to hide when they are sore or in discomfort, otherwise predators and competitors would pick up on the signs and target them. So, as owners, we need to be vigilant to quite subtle changes in our pet’s behaviour that could indicate they are in pain, and ensure they don’t suffer in silence.

Depression

Most of us assume that if an animal is in pain they will cry out or whine but actually the opposite is true. Chronic (low grade and continual) pain is very depressing and often animals learn to cope with it and show few outward signs of a problem, other than maybe being quieter than normal or sleeping more. The problem with is that this sort of pain is common in older pets, for example with arthritis, and this is what we expect them to do anyway. However, even in excruciating pain our pets can be very quiet and withdrawn. I once saw a cat with a very badly broken leg who had managed to drag himself home, curl up in his basket and was so calm his owner didn’t think he was in any discomfort, until she saw the x-rays! Often with this type of pain, it is not until you give your pet some pain killers, and see the difference in their behaviour, that you realise how sore they were in the first place.

Lameness

A very common sign of leg pain, from pulled muscles to arthritis, is limping. Other than this the pet can seem quite well and cheerful, and often won’t respond to the leg being moved about or felt, which can lead to their owners thinking they aren’t in any pain, when nothing could be further from the truth! Lameness is a very common problem and if it lasts more than 24 hours (even if it is intermittent) the pet should always be checked over by a vet.

Smelly Breath

All pets have smelly breath to some degree (!) but halitosis can often be the only sign, without looking in their mouths, which some pets are reluctant to let their owners do, of painful teeth problems. Often people assume if their pet is eating then they aren’t in any dental pain but this isn’t the case, as an animal’s drive to eat will always overcome any soreness. In fact, if a pet does stop eating because of mouth pain, it is likely to be excruciating and will have been there for some time. Other signs of mouth pain include tartar build up on the teeth and swollen gums. If you are concerned, most vets run free dental clinics, so give them a ring and pop along.

Weight Loss
Bunnies

Our smaller pets, like rabbits and guinea pigs, are even better than cats and dogs at hiding when they are sore because, as prey animals, if they show any signs of being ill, they will be quickly singled out by predators. So their owners have to be even more vigilant to spot problems. In fact, it is not uncommon for these pets to be brought into our clinics close to death, their owners distraught that they have missed signs of a problem or thinking they have fallen ill very quickly, when it is more likely they have been poorly for a while but have managed to hide their symptoms. However, one thing which always happens if these animals are in pain or poorly is that they will lose weight, even if they appear to be eating normally. So, weighing your small pets regularly is a great way of monitoring them and any changes in a downward direction should always be taken seriously.

Our pets can’t speak for themselves and in many cases are too brave for their own good; trying to pretend that everything is fine when in fact they are in pain and suffering. So, all good owners should be alert to the small changes that could indicate a big problem and make sure they get them treatment they need and deserve.

If you are worried that your pet may be in pain, please contact your vet. If any other symptoms are present why not check the urgency of the problem by using our Interactive Symptom Guide?

When Liver Meets Lungs – Diaphragmatic Hernia in a Cat

Up a TreeOne evening whilst playing outside, a little 6 month old kitten (let’s call her Tilly) climbed up a tree. A rather inexperienced hunter, when she saw a little birdie on the end of the branch she reached out to get it and, crash! The branch was too thin to support her weight and she fell to the ground. Now what they say is often true, cats do tend to land on their feet, but not always and poor Tilly landed on her side. She got up though and ran into the house, so her owner assumed she was OK. A few hours later her owner noticed that she was quieter than normal and not interested in her dinner. She was also breathing faster than normal but otherwise seemed OK, purring and affectionate, so her owner went to bed and planned to take her to the vet if she was still not right in the morning.

As you could probably guess, at 8:00 the next morning I got a phone call from Tilly’s owner, as she had not gotten any better overnight – she was still very quiet and breathing even faster than before. We told her to come straight down and we would take a look right away. A few minutes later Tilly arrived, looking quite sorry for herself, but still happy enough to give me a little purr. I did a full physical exam and found her to be in good health except for her breathing, which sounded quieter than normal through the stethoscope. Her respiratory or breathing rate was very high and she seemed to be struggling to get enough air in. She also seemed depressed, certainly not what I would expect of such a lively young kitten. Once we were certain that everything else seemed to be OK, we gave her some pain medicine and then a little bit of sedation so she would sit still while we took some x-rays of her chest. What we found was no surprise given her history, but still always comes as a bit of a shock when we see it – Tilly had a diaphragmatic hernia.

What is a diaphragmatic hernia?

The diaphragm is a large, thin muscle that separates the chest cavity (with the heart and lungs) from the abdomen (with the stomach, liver and intestines among other things). It is normally an air-tight barrier which allows the chest cavity to achieve negative pressure, in other words there is pressure on the lungs to expand out rather than collapse in. When the diaphragm moves down with each breath, the lungs move with it causing them to expand even further when you breathe in. And when it moves back up again, it helps the lungs to contract so the air is forced out when you exhale. Without a diaphragm or with a damaged one you can still breathe, just not very well, and this is what poor Tilly was experiencing. A hernia is the protrusion of an organ through a hole in the body cavity which normally contains it. In the case of a diaphragmatic hernia, a hole develops in the diaphragm which allows the organs of the abdomen to enter the chest cavity. As you can imagine, this is neither good for chest, as the invading organ takes up precious lung space, nor for the organ itself as sometimes its blood supply can get cut off in the process. Some diaphragmatic hernias are emergencies and need to be corrected immediately, while some can go on for weeks without anybody even noticing, it depends on the size of the hole and which organs get displaced. Some animals are even born with them. In Tilly’s case, the sudden pressure on her belly from hitting the ground caused her diaphragm to tear and some of her liver to move up through the hole. It was a serious condition but not a life-threatening emergency, and it has been shown that there is a higher success rate in some cases if surgery is done after 24-48 hours, so she was scheduled for surgery to repair the hernia the following day and kept in hospital under close observation until then.

This is an image of Tilly’s chest – the dotted line shows where the diaphragm usually sits and the solid line shows Tilly’s diaphragm, with the liver sitting inside the bulge.  A relatively easy but dramatic diagnosis!

This is an image of Tilly’s chest – the dotted line shows where the diaphragm usually sits and the solid line shows Tilly’s diaphragm, with the liver sitting inside the bulge. A relatively easy but dramatic diagnosis!

So what happened?

We took Tilly to surgery the following day and once we could see inside, the extent of the injury became apparent. There was a 5 cm tear in the diaphragm muscle, and about half of her liver was now sitting right next to her lungs! We were able to carefully pull the liver back into the abdomen and sew up the hole, making sure that all the organs looked happy and healthy before finishing the surgery. Our nurse did a fantastic job keeping Tilly stable under the anaesthetic, and even had to breathe for her for a few minutes while we sewed up the hole. Just before we woke her up, we inserted a needle into the chest to drain out all the extra air so that her chest cavity could regain its negative pressure. Her breathing was immediately improved, and stayed that way throughout her recovery. The next day she was eating and even trying to play with the notes on her cage, so she was able to go home.

It has now been nearly a week and Tilly is still doing really well. Her owner says she is even trying to climb things, despite being told that she must stay very quiet to allow her injuries some time to heal. If only you could explain to her how she got into this trouble in the first place! All the best to brave Tilly and her brave owners, I expect she will make a full recovery and be back to her usual kitten acrobatics in no time.

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

Pain Part 2: Getting rid of pain

Pain and pain relief are massive topics which can – and do – fill several textbooks. It’s way beyond the scope of a blog to go into all of the detail surrounding the use of painkillers, and so all I really want to do is to outline some of the different types of pain control that we can use, both in the surgery and as day-to-day treatments.

Pain relief is one of the great success stories in medicine, and it’s no coincidence that some of my favourite drugs of all time are painkillers. Our advances mean that pain in our patients shouldn’t be accepted, and although sometimes we fail to control it, we should never stop trying.

We use a number of different types of painkiller:

  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • Steroids
  • Opioids and opioid-like drugs
  • Others

NSAIDs

These are the most widely-used type of painkiller and include (for humans) aspirin, ibuprofen and paracetamol. They act by stopping inflammation.

They’re commonly prescribed for post-op pain and for joint problems and may be given for long periods of time. When you’re given painkillers to take home from the vets, they’re usually NSAIDs.

Three things to really take on board with these drugs:

  1. Human drugs are not always safe for pets, so never give anything to your pet without talking to your vet first: half a paracetamol can kill a cat, a big dose of ibuprofen can do the same to dogs and even a solitary aspirin can be a lethal overdose for a toy breed, designed as it is for a much bigger animal (us). This is why we have veterinary-licensed drugs for our patients.
  2. Increasing doses won’t give more pain relief, and may cause side effects. If they’re not working for your pet, talk to your vet about alternatives.
  3. NSAIDs are most effective when given before the inflammation starts. It might seem odd to suggest giving painkillers before the pain even begins, but this is important in treating chronic, repeated and predictable pain like arthritis.

Two of the most common drugs we use are meloxicam and carprofen. Meloxicam usually comes as a syrup, which can be dosed very accurately, and carprofen is generally in tablet form. Both drugs may be used long term as a daily dose and both have been responsible for giving patients their lives back, sometimes for years. We’re also rediscovering paracetamol as an excellent addition to treatments in dogs.

Recently, newer NSAIDs have been introduced which are labelled either as cox-2 inhibitors (e.g. firocoxib), or else dual inhibitors (tepoxalin). Essentially, these are just descriptions of which bit of the inflammatory cascade they act upon, and they’re designed to reduce some risks of side effects that we see with other NSAIDs. It’s arguable, though, as to whether they’re better at relieving pain than some of the older drugs.

More recent still is Trocoxil, an NSAID for dogs which is only given once a month. The theory is that because it acts as a persistent block to inflammation, there’s no point where the vicious cycle of pain can really take a hold. The exact ins and outs of the drug are a bit too much to go into here, but as always, speak to your vet about this medication if you’re interested in finding out more. Do understand, though, that it’s not for every patient and your vet may have good reasons not to use it on your dog.

Steroids

Steroids are very powerful anti-inflammatories, which gives them painkilling properties. However, they also affect the immune system – many patients take them for allergies and auto-immune problems – and can have major side-effects when used long-term at high doses; they also can’t be given with NSAIDs and so for practical reasons their use as painkillers is limited. You may have experience of PLT (Predno-LeucoTropin), a medicine with a steroid component which can be great for chronic pain when other drugs seem to be failing. It’s been around for a long time, and many an experienced vet will recognise its usefulness.

Opioids

Opioids are a group of drugs which act to block the passage and brain detection of pain signals. The classic drug in this group is morphine, which still forms the basis for relief of severe pain in humans. These are very powerful painkillers indeed, although the degree of pain relief depends on whether they’re what we call a full-agonist or a partial-agonist.

Drugs like morphine, pethidine and fentanyl are full-agonists, and tend to be used only within the surgery. They are subject to close control and are never dispensed. Generally they’re given by injection, although fentanyl is available as a long-acting skin patch, which has been very successful for use in trauma patients like RTA cats.

Buprenorphine and butorphanol are partial-agonists and are often used as part of a pre-med before surgery. Buprenorphine is a great painkiller which is usually injected within the practice, but may occasionally be dispensed for oral, very short-term use. It is certainly useful in breaking pain cycles and allowing us to get onto more stable pain relief regimes. For in-patients where NSAIDs either don’t quite cut it, or else a combination therapy is needed, buprenorphine is an excellent drug.

A drug that we’ll often use long-term in out-patients is tramadol. This is a human drug which acts in a similar manner to opioids, and has a number of significant advantages:

  1. It’s usually pretty safe, although it can temporarily knock some patients a little flat. Your vet should tell you about this when prescribing.
  2. It’s a GOOD painkiller
  3. As it has a different way of working to NSAIDs or steroids, it can be used in conjunction with many other drugs to create a better painkilling effect

Others

Other drugs that we use act in novel ways, or else are designed for other purposes but just happen to help with pain control. These are important drugs, and whilst they’re described last they’re definitely not least in importance. In brief:

  • Local anaesthetics may be used in and around surgery, to numb the pain nerves. These tend to be injectable, although some creams are available which can be useful to pre-treat patients with needle phobias and the like.
  • Ketamine – yes, the horse tranquiliser – has been used for years in emergency medicine as a painkiller; it’s often included in battle packs for soldiers. Its use in our patients is quite specialised and confined to hospital environments.
  • Gabapentin. This is a very interesting drug indeed. It’s normally used as an anti-epileptic, but seems to have a great effect on pain of nervous origin (aka neuropathic pain), so can be useful for spinal and neurological conditions.
  • Cartrophen is an anti-arthritic drug (also sometimes used in bladder problems in cats) which has a number of effects on joints. It’s usually given as four weekly injections, followed by a variable period of remission. It can be very beneficial for some arthritis patients, but may need a little forward planning in its use, as its administration isn’t recommended at the same time as NSAIDs. It’s certainly a drug worthy of close inspection in long term arthritis cases.

Integrated methods of pain control

Whilst it’s obvious that we have some great drugs for relieving pain, reliance on drugs alone in any condition is generally a limiting approach, as adding in other treatment types – or modalities – may offer greatly increased success rates.

For example, in heart disease drugs may help to keep the cardiovascular system going, but are much less effective when used by themselves than in an overall strategy including lifestyle change, weight loss, exercise programmes, regular monitoring and support networks.

Similarly, drugs may form the heart of a pain relief strategy, but shouldn’t be used as an excuse to avoid other measures that can help – and there are even times when non-drug pain control is good enough that painkillers are not needed. Whatever the non-drug modality used, the decision on when not to use painkillers is a simple one:

  1. The pain is being completely controlled by non-drug methods.
  2. That’s it.

Remember that phrase – pain is not acceptable in our patients. If nothing else, these blogs should have explained both why pain is a bad thing in the long run, and the sheer number of drugs that fight pain. Treating pain completely without drugs is a brilliant solution, but simply taking the edge off the pain is not enough. Equally, though, finding a number of ways to help with the pain will almost certainly mean that your pet gets more relief and is happier.

Treatment modalities which can help in chronically painful conditions include:

  • Acupuncture – there’s a reasonable body of evidence for the physical effects of acupuncture and theories of how it may ‘close the gate’ on pain. It’s now widely available around the country, but must be performed by or under the direction of a vet.
  • Supplements – for joint problems, there are a number of supplements containing combinations of glucosamine, chondroitin and green-lipped mussel extract, which protect the cartilage and may even get rid of the need for painkillers in early arthritis. Additionally, essential fatty acid supplements and vitamin E are both mooted as aids to tissue repair and free-radical scavenging.
  • Herbal remedies containing Devil’s Claw are widely available, but be warned that the supplement can cause side effects and that clinical trials have produced highly variable results.
  • Weight loss – whilst it’s obvious that in arthritis, every excess ounce is another ounce of pain, recent work has suggested that body fat has a chemical pro-inflammatory effect which may exacerbate pain generally. Reducing body fat may reduce the body’s pain responses, particularly in chronic conditions.
  • Surgery – for many painful conditions, surgery is the obvious treatment to permanently remove the pain at source.
  • Physiotherapy – hydrotherapy, mobilisation, massage and PROM are all very useful in promoting recovery and dealing with chronically painful conditions. Access to these services is usually by referral from your vet, and animal physios are highly qualified professionals.
  • Mood enhancement – pain is depressing, so elevating mood helps patients to cope, and also makes new pain easier to deal with. A number of products are available, from pills (including zylkene, a natural extract, and amitryptilline) to pheromone sprays and diffusers (feliway, DAP), but equally, promotion of routine and enjoyable activities can be very successful.
  • Prevention –as the best pain relief is prevention, a word should be said about how we avoid seeing dogs with arthritis or cats with pancreas issues in the first place. Also perhaps timely, as the Animal Health Trust, in conjunction with Edinburgh Vet School, have just announced a project into genetic testing for hip and elbow dysplasias in Labradors. Being able to breed the conditions out of our patients will have a major impact on the wellbeing of future generations (so, if your Lab is KC registered and hip scored, the AHT might just want to hear from you).
  • Magnet therapy – to this day, I still don’t know if this really works, but plenty of my clients are convinced – including a large proportion of horse owners, who are about the most hard-bitten, unpersuadable people out there.

There are, of course, countless other integrated therapies, like Reiki or Homeopathy, and each will have their champions and detractors. The important factors with any of these are choice and inclusivity – it’s fine to explore all of the possibilities, but not to the detriment of the patient. As a general rule, the vet who prescribes you meloxicam won’t demand that you stay off the Reiki during treatment, and this should work both ways.

The mainstay of pain relief will always be drug therapy, but its effectiveness can be massively enhanced by looking at integrated treatments. Pain is such a debilitating problem that anything which can help to remove it has got to be worth exploring. If you feel that your pet may be in pain, especially if you’re already giving treatment, then speak to your vet about what you can do – there are so many ways to target pain that there’s bound to be something to help.

And do remember that phrase: pain is not acceptable in our patients.

If you are worried about your pet’s health, talk to your vet or use our Interactive Symptom Guide to help assess how urgent the problem may be.

Pain in animals part 1: what is pain?

Pain. Everybody knows what it feels like, and – apart from a few determined individuals – we tend to avoid it. But what is it? The International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP) defines it as:

“an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage.”

Or, in other words, when you damage yourself it hurts. And if you’re feeling down already, it hurts more. And if you’re not feeling down already, then pain may make you feel down. And then it will hurt more.

The IASP mainly looks at pain in humans, but it’s a long time since we stopped trying to pretend that animals either don’t feel pain like we do, or else don’t get upset about it. They do, and their inability to communicate pain effectively (or else our inability to properly listen) means that for a lot of animals, pain is a chronic, miserable constant in their lives, despite help being close to hand.

There are tiny pain receptors all over the body, inside and out, attached to nerve fibres. When a tissue is damaged, they’re triggered to send impulses up to the brain, which senses them and registers the feeling we call pain. Hard to describe, but we all understand what it is and we’ve all got experience of it. Pain receptors are usually well embedded in tissues, and usually need a fair bit of triggering – otherwise, any form of touch would be painful.

When we describe pain in ourselves, we often use terms like sharp, jabbing, dull or throbbing, and they can give an indication of how bad it is. But in a more fundamental sense, we differentiate into two types: physiologic and pathologic.

Physiologic pain is ‘protective’ – it’s the pain we get when picking up a hot pan. Very quickly, the body registers the ‘ouch’ and the pan is dropped, hopefully before too much damage is done. Without this kind of reflexive response, we’d just keep on holding the pan until our hands were badly damaged.

Physiologic pain, more or less, is our friend.

Pathologic pain, on the other hand, is the pain that comes from existing damage, such as a broken leg or a arthritis. Whilst it can initially be useful to draw our attention to the condition, it becomes debilitating quite quickly and can be a problem in its own right. It’s this kind of pain that we need to deal with in our patients: the pain that is ever-present or recurrent, at whatever level. If we don’t, the pain becomes responsible for stress, depression and a reduced quality of life.

For example, the pain of arthritis can actually make the condition worse:

  1. being unwilling to move around makes the joints stiffen up through lack of use
  2. lack of exercise piles on the weight, putting more pressure on the joints
  3. increased pressure on the joints means more pain, so less movement, more stiffening and more weight gain

A vicious cycle is created where the problem becomes worse and worse under its own steam – and pain is as the root of it. Whilst we can’t cure the arthritis itself, by removing pain and getting our patients moving we can reverse the stiffness and get some weight off.

Pathologic pain can have its uses, but isn’t always our friend.

How do we recognise pain?

Domino sleepingIn order to be able to keep our pets out of pain, we must be able to recognise the signs of pain. Remember, though, that absence of signs doesn’t guarantee that there’s no pain – if in doubt, assume it’s there.

Understanding how a pet feels depends on a number of things:

  • Empathy
  • Understanding of normal behaviour
  • Observation

Some owners are just better at spotting pain. Some patients are better at showing it. But unless we look for it, we’re never going to find it.

Dogs tend to be the easiest patients in which to spot pain: their outward responses to pain are more similar to ours than for most species. They’re designed for pack-living, and their conditioning in our homes makes them more likely to be willing to show pain to us, and even to seek help with it. I have, over the years, seen a small number of ‘malingerers’ who were hopping lame at home, but completely normal when away from their owners – generally because being hopping lame at home meant cuddles and treats and all things good.

Do beware, though, of behavioural changes as the only signs of chronic pain in dogs. When our collie, Juno, was a younger dog, a combination of being overweight (yes, shame on me), hip dysplasia and the appearance of screaming toddlers with grabby hands made her mildly aggressive – which, for Spoony, was so out of character that it was immediately apparent. Early recognition of the central issue, along with pain control measures (weight loss, acupuncture, educating the kids) sorted it all out quickly.

Cats are different, very different. When in pain, they tend to isolate and may just become distant and/or grumpy. There may be aggression towards inanimate objects, or self-directed as overgrooming to the point of self-harm, and accidentally touching the sore spot will usually lead to bloodshed, none of which will be the cat’s. But cats are relatively worse at expressing pain in other ways which are immediately recognisable. Drop in food intake is, though, a classic sign of pain in cats.

Rabbits and other herbivores (traditionally, the prey animals) can be very difficult to recognise as being in pain. Their entire survival in the wild depends on not looking weak – predators will tend to go after the stragglers first, to reduce energy expenditure and risk in obtaining food. Survival in the wild depends on being invisible as a target, so hiding signs of pain is standard in these patients. Sometimes, you have to look very hard to find it, which doesn’t mean that the pain isn’t significant. It’s entirely connected that these are the species whose general welfare gives us the most worry.

General signs of pain in animals include:

  • Reduced mobility or abnormal movement – if it hurts to move, pain is reduced by not moving. Equally, if a pet is moving in an odd way, then it’s because moving in a normal way hurts. A major, major problem that we encounter is the attitude that reduced mobility is a normal part of ageing – so pain is often not recognised in older patients. It’s amazing what a trial on painkillers can do to change minds.
  • Guarding and defence – hiding away or trying to protect the bit that hurts. A common entry on clinical notes is ‘guarding the abdomen’ which usually relates to a tenseness in the belly when we’re trying to palpate.
  • Inappetance – most animals will either eat less or stop eating altogether when in pain. When the pain is settled, we often see rebound eating, where intake is increased for a while. This can be a cardinal sign for assessing response to treatment.
  • Adipsia or polydipsia – most animals will also drink less, although some, often as a response to stress, will drink too much. Patients with abdominal pain will often swallow great bowlfuls of water, possibly because of a temporary soothing effect.
  • Altered interaction – many animals will hide away and reduce their interactions with other members of the household; others, particularly dogs, will become more needy and seek more interaction. Normally friendly relationships may explode into world war three and, rarely, vice-versa. It’s not so much how the interactions change, but that they change in the first place.
  • General distress – other signs of distress include increased breathing rate, increased pulse rate, abnormal breathing (cats DON’T pant as a normal behaviour), vocalisation (howling, mewing, whimpering), a certain glassiness of the eyes, hunched body position, bubbling at the mouth (reptiles), fluffing of the feathers or over-stimulation and anxiety from normal noises and events.

Harvey hidingEven allowing for all of these symptoms, pain can be a vague and difficult thing to spot. One of our classic presentations in the consult room is ‘S/he’s just not right’, where a patient just isn’t him- or herself. It’s astonishing how many of these patients have some kind of pain complex, and full marks from me to any owner who can spot when their pet is just not happy, however subtle. Nothing ever happens for no reason, and absence of any particular symptom in a depressed patient should always trigger suspicion of pain as a cause.

What factors make pain worse?

Inflammation is a big one. Inflammation is the swelling you get around, say, a cut or a sprain. It’s also the reason why a sprained ankle tends to hurt more the next day than it does at the time of injury. Inflammation is the body’s reaction to detecting damage and is its way of drawing the immune system in to start repairing things. Once damage is detected, a sequence of events is triggered called the inflammatory cascade, which goes a bit like a line of dominoes – once started, it takes on a life of its own. The end result is the release of a lot of chemicals which promote blood flow into the area and, importantly here, an increased sensitivity of the local pain receptors so that almost any pressure sets them off.

A good illustration of this is to imagine someone poking you lightly in the arm. For most of us, it’s not painful, just annoying (and strangely familiar for those with brothers and sisters). However, if you’d been to the doctors for a jab earlier in the day, suddenly the touch is extremely painful. The inflammation around the injection site has switched all the pain receptors on to the point where even light pressure sets them off. This phenomenon is at the heart of much of the chronic pain that our patients suffer from, with conditions like arthritis. Drugs which try to stop the inflammatory cascade are called anti-inflammatories.

Other things that make pain feel worse are:

  • The amount of time that it’s been going on for – most of us are fairly stoic, at least at first, but sooner or later an inability to get comfortable, to sleep, to do the things we want to, all start to get us down. It’s the same for our pets.
  • Having more than one painful bit – two plus two in this case tends to make five.
  • Previous experience of pain. Our pets have a phenomenal memory for pain, which translates to a fear of repeating the experience. Pain at the vets can put a patient off us for life, which is why we try to make the first couple of visits as stress-free as possible.
  • Being in a bad mood already. If you walk down the street on a happy day and stub your toe, it hurts. If you’re already in a bad mood, the world seems to cave in. This is where the vicious cycle of pain and depression starts to bite: being in pain causes stress and depression, and stress and depression make pain feel worse.

Pain control is one of the most progressive aspects of veterinary medicine, which means that pain in our pets is no longer acceptable. It might not always be possible to get right on top of it, but that doesn’t mean we should ever be happy about it – and there are now so many available treatments that giving up is simply not a reasonable option.

In the next instalment, I want to discuss the various drugs that we can use in dealing with pain in animals, and how they might fit together. After that, we’ll briefly go on to integrated (non-drug) treatments and how they can make all the difference to some patients.

If you are worried about any symptoms in your pet, please talk to your vet or use our Interacitve Symptom Guide for advice on how urgent the problem may be.

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