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Professional Version

Other Common Equine Emergencies


Amelia S. Munsterman

, DVM, PhD, DACVS, DACVECC, Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences, College of Veterinary Medicine, Michigan State University

Reviewed/Revised Jul 2019 | Modified Oct 2022
Topic Resources

Common conditions seen on an emergent basis include esophageal obstruction, rectal tears, and postcastration evisceration. Diagnosis for these conditions is often made based on characteristic clinical signs, as well as transrectal palpation for urogenital conditions and by esophageal endoscopy to identify obstructions. Medical management of esophageal obstructions is common in the field, although complications such as aspiration pneumonia and strictures may require additional therapy. Rectal tears can also be medically managed for minor injuries, but severe tears should be identified immediately and referred for surgery. Evisceration of omentum through the inguinal ring can be managed on the farm, but intestinal evisceration typically requires triage and referral for surgical reduction.

Esophageal Obstruction

Etiology of Esophageal Obstruction in Horses

Intraluminal esophageal obstruction is a common emergency in horses and is caused by impaction of ingested feed material. The most frequent sites of impaction are the proximal esophagus and just cranial to the thoracic inlet. Predisposing factors include:

  • bolting feed

  • poor dentition

  • recent sedation

  • poor feed quality

  • recent feed changes

  • dehydration

Clinical Signs of Esophageal Obstruction in Horses

  • Nasal discharge containing saliva and feed material

  • Hypersalivation

  • Coughing

  • Retching

  • Signs of abdominal pain (eg, rolling, kicking at abdomen)

  • Frequent attempts to swallow

Diagnosis of Esophageal Obstruction in Horses

  • Physical examination

  • Nasoesophageal intubation

  • Endoscopy

  • Radiography

  • Ultrasonography

Esophageal obstruction is identified by palpation of a foreign body in the neck, passage of a nasogastric tube, or esophageal endoscopy. In refractory cases, radiography and contrast radiography may be used, particularly if a foreign body, stricture, diverticulum, or esophageal rupture is suspected. Ultrasonography may identify thoracic changes consistent with aspiration of feed.

Treatment of Esophageal Obstruction in Horses

  • Sedation

  • Antispasmotics

  • Nasogastric intubation and lavage

  • Antibiotics

Once the presence of an obstruction has been confirmed, the horse should be muzzled, and feed and water withheld. Acute, simple obstructions may resolve with sedation and consequent relaxation of the esophageal musculature. An alpha2-agonist such as xylazine or detomidine provides good skeletal muscle relaxation. The obstruction should resolve within 1 hour after administration of a muscle relaxant. If the horse is dehydrated, IV fluids may also help to resolve the obstruction.

If the obstruction has not resolved within ~1 hour after sedation, or if the choke is chronic (>3 hours duration), the horse should be sedated again to allow the head to drop for lavage of the esophagus. A nasogastric tube is passed, and gentle lavage with water is performed to flush the esophagus. Mineral oil should never be used because of the risk of lipid aspiration pneumonia. An esophageal lavage tube (a nasogastric tube with a cuff) is useful to help resolve the obstruction and reduce feed aspiration. Alternatively, a cuffed endotracheal tube can be passed through the nasal passages and into the esophagus, and a smaller nasogastric tube used for lavage. These procedures can be repeated intermittently and can be aided by general anesthesia. If unsuccessful, an endoscope can be used to identify the obstruction and facilitate manual removal using endoscopic forceps.

After the obstruction has been relieved, endoscopy can be used to assess the esophageal mucosa. Circumferential ulceration can lead to stricture formation and result in recurrence of obstruction. Horses that have been choked are at risk of recurrence in the 2–4 weeks after the initial event, even without visible esophageal damage. Feeding a slurried, pelleted diet or grass during convalescence can prevent recurrence. When the esophagus has been damaged, narrowing is maximal 30 days after the obstruction, but will often resolve as the stricture remodels over time. Before attempts are made to resolve a potential stricture surgically, the horse should be managed medically with dietary modification for 60 days to allow for remodeling of the scar tissue. Resolution may result during this time without further intervention. Broad-spectrum antibiotics are administered to prevent or treat aspiration pneumonia in horses after esophageal obstruction, along with anti-inflammatory drugs and tetanus prophylaxis. Sucralfate (20–40 mg/kg, PO, 3-4 times daily) has been advocated to facilitate healing of esophageal ulceration.

Rectal Tears

Rectal tears are serious and possibly life-threatening injuries in a horse. Prevention is key, but if a rectal tear occurs, appropriate and timely referral can result in a successful outcome.

Classification of Rectal Tears in Horses

Rectal tears are classified into four grades based on the number of layers involved.

  • Grade I - involves the mucosa and submucosa only

  • Grade II - involves the muscularis only, with a mucosal-submucosal hernia

  • Grade III - involves the mucosa, submucosa, and muscularis, leaving the serosal layer intact

  • Grade IV - involves all layers of the rectum, including the serosa

In the case of grade III tears, further classification is made based on the location of the tear; grade IIIa tears leave the visceral peritoneum intact, and grade IIIb tears are located dorsally in the mesentery of the rectum. Most tears resulting from rectal palpation are located dorsally and extend into the mesocolon. Retroperitoneal tears are rare but have been reported. Fecal contamination often occurs with grade IV tears, but bacterial translocation and peritonitis is still possible with grade III tears. Also see Rectal Tears in Animals Rectal Tears in Animals Rectal tears may be caused by foreign bodies, bite wounds, or trauma from palpation. Tenesmus and hemorrhage are the most common clinical signs. Diagnosis is based on physical examination. Partial... read more .

Etiology of Rectal Tears in Horses

Rectal tears are most commonly associated with transrectal palpation for evaluation of colic or for assessment of the reproductive tract. Other causes reported include introduction of foreign objects into the rectum and breeding accidents. Some rectal tears are considered idiopathic.

Diagnosis of Rectal Tears in Horses

  • Rectal palpation

  • Endoscopy

A rectal tear is suspected when there is sudden loss of resistance during palpation and when a copious amount of fresh blood is present on the rectal sleeve. Blood-tinged mucus usually indicates mucosal irritation only. If a tear is suspected, the severity should be immediately assessed and measures taken to initiate treatment or referral.

The horse should be sedated for assessment of the tear, and an epidural performed if there is any straining. N-butylscopolammonium bromide (0.3 mg/kg, IV slowly) may be given to decrease peristalsis. A lidocaine enema may also reduce straining. A speculum should not be used, because it can worsen the tear. Digital palpation (preferably bare handed) is then carefully performed. A thin flap of tissue indicates a tear through only the mucosa. If a large cavity with a thin membrane is noted, a grade III tear is present. If intestine can be palpated, the tear is a grade IV. Visual confirmation can be made carefully using colonoscopy/rectal endoscopy.

Treatment of Rectal Tears in Horses

  • Dietary management

  • Surgery

Grade I and II tears can be medically managed with antibiotics, a laxative diet (mineral oil, mashes of complete pelleted feeds or alfalfa pellets, fresh grass) and anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDS) to facilitate defecation. Select grade III tears can be managed similarly, if necessary because of financial restrictions, but also require daily manual evacuation for as long as 3 weeks. Peritonitis is a risk for grade III tears, repeat epidurals are required, and the time commitment is substantial. For the best outcome, grade III and IV tears should be referred to a surgical facility. However, it is essential to prevent fecal contamination of the abdomen during transportation; therefore, rectal packing is highly recommended. The horse is sedated and an epidural performed using a combination of xylazine and mepivicaine. A tampon composed of a 7.5-cm stockinette filled with moist, iodine-soaked cotton, coated with surgical lubricant is inserted until it is located at least 10 cm cranial to the tear. The stockinette should be inserted before filling it completely to avoid enlarging the tear. The anus is then temporarily occluded with a purse-string suture or towel clamp. The horse should be given systemic, broad-spectrum antibiotics, NSAIDs, and appropriate tetanus prophylaxis. Prevention of fecal contamination by grade III and IV tears during referral has a direct influence on the success of the outcome.

At the referral facility, the tear is reassessed to identify additional damage sustained during transportation. An abdominocentesis is performed to check for peritonitis. After assessment, several treatment options are available. For grade II tears with no fecal contamination that are at risk of forming a diverticulum, primary repair using a rectal approach can be attempted using one-handed sutures. The horse should be monitored carefully for development of a perirectal abscess, which will require surgical drainage. For retroperitoneal tears with fecal contamination, the tear can be packed with iodine-soaked gauze and the cavity cleaned out daily. In mares, the cavity can be drained into the vagina, and the tear closed primarily. A laxative diet and analgesics are provided to decrease the pain of defecation. The most serious complication of retroperitoneal tears is development of an abscess that migrates forward into the abdominal cavity. This is prevented by ensuring appropriate drainage into the rectum or vagina.

For grade III or IV tears in a caudal location, primary repair by hand suturing through a rectal approach can be attempted. A successful repair of a grade IV tear using a linear stapling device has been reported. This approach requires that the abdomen has minimal to no contamination. Alternatively, these tears can be treated through a ventral midline approach. A celiotomy has the advantage of a concurrent large-colon enterotomy and lavage, thus reducing the pressure of ingesta on the suture line.

Grade III and IV tears can also be treated by insertion of a rectal liner using a ventral midline celiotomy. Rectal liners are made of a plastic ring glued to a rectal sleeve. The liner is introduced rectally by a nonsterile assistant and sutured to the small colon using an external circumferential suture pattern that allows the ring to slough in ~10 days, resulting in a small-colon anastomosis. The liner diverts the normal fecal passage until the tear has healed. In other cases, a loop colostomy can be performed to maintain patency of the distal segment. The colostomy is performed as the first step; after the tear has healed, colonic continuity is reestablished using a second surgical procedure. In all fecal diversion procedures, an attempt is made to close or approximate the tear. Laparoscopic suturing of rectal tears has been also described.

Postcastration Evisceration

Etiology of Postcastration Evisceration in Horses

Postcastration evisceration is always a risk after open castrations, but the risk is increased in draft horses, Tennessee Walking horses, American Saddlebreds, and Standardbreds, or after castration of an adult stallion because of their larger inguinal rings. Evisceration typically occurs within 4 hours of castration, but is a risk for as long as 6 days after surgery.

Diagnosis of Postcastration Evisceration in Horses

  • Physical examination

  • Transrectal palpation

Evisceration of omentum or small intestine is first identified by a structure hanging out of the surgical incision. It is important to instruct the owner to keep the horse quiet and to support the eviscerated structure(s) with a towel to avoid further stretching or damage. Examination quickly reveals what structure is involved, so that treatment can be initiated.

Treatment of Postcastration Evisceration in Horses

  • Emasculation of eviscerated omentum

  • Reduction of herniated bowel

  • Referral for surgical reduction or resection

For omental evisceration, the horse is restrained and rectal palpation performed to ensure that only the omentum is involved. Prolapse of the omentum can usually be managed by sedation and emasculation of the omentum as far proximal as possible. Alternatively, the horse is placed under short-term general anesthesia, and the omentum and scrotum are cleaned and sterilely prepared. The omentum is emasculated as proximal as possible, and the scrotum is packed with gauze and closed. Systemic antibiotics and NSAIDs are administered, and the packing is removed in 2 days. Barring complications, antibiotics are discontinued on day 3.

If the small intestine is eviscerated, a short-term general anesthetic is given. The intestine is copiously lavaged and examined for damage. Avulsion of the mesenteric vessels or intestinal compromise require resection. The scrotum should be sutured closed over the eviscerated bowel and the horse referred to a surgical facility. If the intestine appears healthy and without severe contamination, it can be replaced in the abdomen. This often requires dilation of the internal inguinal ring. Care should be taken to replace the intestine within the peritoneal cavity through the inguinal canal and not through a separate, iatrogenic opening. If the herniation cannot be reduced confidently, the scrotum should be sutured closed over the herniated intestine, and the case referred.

If the herniation can be reduced, the inguinal canal and scrotum are packed with sterile gauze, taking care to prevent introducing gauze into the abdomen, and the scrotum is sutured closed. A short segment of gauze is left exposed. Alternatively, the external inguinal ring and vaginal tunic can be sutured closed primarily instead of packing. Systemic, broad-spectrum antibiotics and NSAIDs are administered, and the horse is monitored closely for development of colic or ileus, which may indicate intestinal devitalization. Should that occur, the horse must be referred for abdominal exploratory surgery. If the horse progresses well, the packing can be removed in 48 hours, and antibiotics can be discontinued 24 hours after removal. It is advised to perform a rectal examination before removing the packing to ensure herniation has not recurred and the intestine has not adhered to the packing material.

Key Points

  • Mild cases of esophageal obstruction may respond to sedation alone.

  • Prolonged cases of esophageal obstruction must be evaluated for aspiration pneumonia, but ultrasonography and prophylactic antimicrobials are recommended for all cases.

  • Rectal tears should be assessed immediately by transrectal palpation or endoscopy under sedation or an epidural to determine appropriate treatment.

  • Closed castration or closure of the external inguinal ring is recommended at the time of castration in draft breeds, Standardbreds, Tennessee Walking Horses, and American Saddlebreds to reduce the risk of evisceration.

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