Intussusception in Horses

Key takeaways

Intussusception occurs when a portion of the intestine folds in on itself and pushes into the adjoining part of the gastrointestinal tract.

  • The causes of intussusception are not fully understood
  • Depending on the level of obstruction caused by the intussusception and whether the blood supply is disrupted, symptoms range from mild to severe abdominal pain
  • Diagnostic tools include physical examination, rectal palpation, and exploratory surgery
  • Treatment is surgery to draw the folded portion of intestine back into its appropriate position
  • Surgical removal of damaged sections of the intestine is sometimes necessary
  • Prognosis with prompt treatment is good
  • In cases where tissues have been damaged, or where postoperative complications develop, prognosis is guarded
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A closer look: Intussusception in Horses

Intussusception is an uncommon but serious condition which requires prompt treatment to avoid severe complications. Horses with mild, moderate, or intermittent abdominal pain require immediate veterinary care. Horses with severe abdominal pain, especially when accompanied by fever, require emergency veterinary care.

Intussusception occurs at several places in the intestines, including:

  • The small intestine
  • The junction between the small intestine and the cecum
  • The junction between the cecum and the colon
  • The colon

Risk factors

The length of the piece of trapped intestine ranges from a few centimeters to as much as a meter. Longer sections are more likely to cause complete intestinal blockage or prevent blood flow to the tissue. The severity of the condition depends on these two factors. The more complete the obstruction, the more severe the colic and the greater the danger. Equally, the greater the disruption to the blood supply, the more painful and dangerous the condition.

Symptoms of complete obstructions and severe disruptions to the blood supply include

  • Rapid, shallow breathing
  • Getting up and down frequently
  • Constant rolling
  • Unwillingness to stand
  • Sweating
  • Kicking or biting themselves aggressively
  • Absence of the usual gastrointestinal noises

Partial obstructions with little or no disruption to the blood supply often occur with milder, chronic symptoms which often coincide with feeding. Weight loss is often noted.

Intussusception occurs in all breeds, both sexes, and at all ages, although horses 6 months to 3 years old are most at risk.

Possible causes

The causes of intussusception are not completely understood at this time.

Main symptoms

The main symptom of intussusception is abdominal pain (colic). Colic can be mild, moderate or severe, depending on the degree of intestinal obstruction. In some cases of intussusception, signs of pain are intermittent.

Testing and diagnosis

Diagnostic tools to identify an intussusception include:

  • Physical examination
  • Rectal palpation
  • Ultrasound
  • Exploratory surgery

Steps to Recovery

Treatment for intussusception is surgical. In less severe cases, surgery aims to gently draw the portion of the intestine that has folded in back out into its normal position.

In cases where the intestine is damaged, either because it cannot be returned to a normal position or because blood supply is compromised and the tissue is dead, the damaged portion of the intestine must be removed.

Prognosis depends on whether the intussusception is resolvable without having to cut out part of the intestine. In cases where no intestine has been removed, the prognosis is good, although recurrence is possible. In cases where part of the intestine has to be removed, prognosis is guarded, due to the risk of complications.


There are no proven preventive measures for intussusception. Good gastrointestinal health is promoted by feeding many small meals throughout the day, offering plenty of fresh water, and ensuring daily exercise.

Is Intussusception in Horses common?

Intussusception is uncommon in horses.

Typical Treatment