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Mare scare: Putting Sugar back on her feet

A veterinary student providing medication to a horse through an IV.
Fourth-year veterinary student Landon Fitzgerald (right) provides medication to Sugar through an IV while WSU equine veterinarian Macarena Sanz (left) assists.

Sugar, a 1,000-pound American quarter horse, was minutes away from death when she arrived at the Washington State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital with severe colic.

A fatty tumor had wrapped around the end of her intestine and was blocking gas from passing through. With so much gas and no place for it to go, Sugar’s enlarged belly prevented her lungs to completely fill with oxygen.

The mare needed emergency surgery.

“We had minutes; I don’t think she had another hour,” said Dr. Macarena Sanz, a WSU equine veterinarian.

Within 15 minutes, the horse was anesthetized and in the surgery room.

“People were dropping from the ceiling. Everyone came out of nowhere. They put her on a sled and drug her out of the trailer straight into surgery,” said Summerlyn Ring, Sugar’s owner.

Ring said she had her doubts her horse could make the three-hour trip from Chewelah, Washington, let alone make it through an invasive surgery, but it was a gamble she was willing to take. Sugar would die otherwise.

Dr. Kelly Farnsworth was the lead veterinarian on the surgery.

Farnsworth said the surgery team’s first priority was to buy time by alleviating some abdominal pressure so Sugar could breathe.

That was made possible by an abdominal decompression procedure where gas is relieved through a small puncture in the intestine via a surgical vacuum system.

Next, the team evaluated the abdomen to see what was causing the severe bloating.

“We suspected it was a colon torsion, where the large intestine twists and causes bloating and abdominal pain,” said Farnworth. “That carries a very low prognosis; only about 40 percent of those cases survive. We’re lucky it wasn’t that.”

Farnsworth found a fatty tumor had grown and twisted at the further end of Sugar’s intestine, causing a blockage.

He removed the tumor and a few others that could cause similar issues in the future.

The team then flushed Sugar’s intestine to ensure no food would get stuck due to the inflammation from the surgery.

The horse was monitored around the clock by WSU veterinarians and fourth-year veterinary students for about a week after the surgery. Sugar went home Sept. 9.

Sanz and Farnsworth say they see dozens of cases like these throughout the year.

“The difference with this one is that she made it,” Sanz said. “This was a true emergency. Nobody wasted time and the horse was on the table in 20 minutes. That is what saved this horse; I am convinced.”

Sanz said veterinarian Marco Lopes had the day off, and he even scrubbed up to help out when he saw the emergency case.

“That’s the type of team we have here,” she said.

Farnsworth agreed.

He added the anesthesia and surgery teams were packed that day and made quick adjustments to take on Sugar. Even administrative staff assisted where an extra hand was needed.

“It was amazing teamwork and coordination,” he said. “As a result, this horse that I really thought might die at any moment, was standing in the stall nibbling on hay the next morning.”

Ring is hopeful the 90-minute procedure could keep the 23-year-old Sugar around for several more years. She’s happy she went forward with the surgery, too.

“It’s really an experience that I would recommend to other horse owners,” Ring said. “The money I spent on Sugar, I couldn’t buy another horse that I have the attachment and memories with.”

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