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Rectal Palpation Per-Rectum Examination

Rectal palpation is an important and commonly performed procedure in equine veterinary practice. It is used primarily in determining the reproductive status of mares combined with ultrasound as part of the reproductive management of mares, but is also used in the diagnosis of other clinical conditions such as colic.

Horses are complex and at times unpredictable animals and due to their temperament and anatomical features, all rectal palpations carry the recognised risk to the horse of a “Rectal Tear”.

A Rectal Tear involves damage to one or more tissue layers of the rectal wall, up to and including the full thickness of all tissue layers.

Depending on the extent of the tissue damage, the consequences of a horse suffering a rectal tear can range from minor, to serious illness requiring major surgery, to death.

SEH Veterinarians are aware of the risks and potential consequences of rectal palpation and act to minimise these risks as far as is practically possible.

Occasionally and in spite of all precautions, horses can suffer a rectal tear while undergoing rectal palpation. This most commonly occurs in young horses and in male horses; however it can happen to any horse undergoing the procedure.

In some cases the veterinarian may feel the tear take place during the palpation or may see evidence of blood on the glove at the completion of the procedure; however in other cases a tear may occur without the veterinarian being aware of it.

If the veterinarian is aware that a rectal tear has occurred, they will take immediate steps to diagnose the extent of the tear and to begin treatment of the horse.

If the veterinarian is unaware that a rectal tear has occurred, it may take some time before the horse shows clinical signs which alert the owner, horse staff or veterinarian to the injury and allow diagnosis of the extent of the tear and treatment to begin.

Unfortunately, due to the nature of rectal tears and the severe consequences which result from them, many horses which suffer partial-thickness tears and most horses which suffer full-thickness tears do not survive, in spite of intensive medical and surgical treatment.