Journal of Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care – Most Recent



Interpreting changes in peritoneal fluid helps clinicians manage colic and other diseases in horses. During abdominal problems in the horse, abdominal fluid characteristics such as color, turbidity, total nucleated and red blood cell counts, cytology, total protein, and l-lactate change in predictable ways, helping the clinician characterize the disease.


Normal abdominal fluid in horses is odorless, clear to light yellow in color, and transparent. Peritoneal fluid becomes more turbid with increasing levels of protein, number of WBCs or RBCs, or with gross contamination following intestinal rupture. The color of abdominal fluid will also change with the type and quantity of cells or other elements present. The transformation of peritoneal fluid color from golden to orange to red represents increasing levels of RBCs, common with strangulating intestinal lesions. Serosanguinous defines fluid that is both turbid and orange to bloody because of increased total protein, WBCs, and RBCs, and is considered classic for diseases characterized by intestinal ischemia. Peritoneal fluid may also be red or blood-colored because of a hemoperitoneum, or secondary to blood contamination during sample collection. l-Lactate measurement in the abdominal fluid has proven invaluable for the identification of strangulating intestinal injury. Cytology acts as an important supplement to cell counts in peritoneal fluid, and the normal ratio of non-degenerate neutrophils:mononuclear cells of 2:1 changes during various gastrointestinal diseases. Culture of peritoneal fluid samples should be performed when septic peritonitis is suspected.


Abdominal fluid is a sensitive indicator of intestinal injury and a useful tool to direct treatment. Peritoneal fluid evaluation includes gross visual and olfactory examination, nucleated cell count, total protein, RBC count, lactate levels, cytology, and culture. The changes noted in such variables are related to the type and duration of the abdominal problem.

Key Points

 Abdominal fluid interpretation has become central to the triage and management of challenging equine colic patients.
 The transformation of peritoneal fluid color from golden to orange to red represents increasing levels of RBCs, common with strangulating intestinal lesions.
 Contamination with RBCs at various concentrations may be secondary to vascular (eg, abdominal wall or mesenteric vessels) or splenic trauma during abdominal fluid collection; however, this must be distinguished from orange to red fluid associated with intestinal strangulating obstruction or hemoabdomen
 Peritoneal fluid analysis reveals abdominal pathology by recognizing specific changes that occur with disease processes affecting the tissues and organs within this cavity.

 Abdominal fluid examination should be used as a tool to direct treatment rather than the definitive test for diagnosis of the acute abdomen
 Septic peritonitis in horses most commonly originates secondary to intestinal compromise or accidents (vascular damage, perforation, or surgical manipulation), leading to bacterial translocation into the abdomen.

Journal of Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care, Volume 32, Issue S1, Page 81-96, January 2022.Wiley: Journal of Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care: Table of Contents

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