April 27, 2008 - Admin

Colic – Recognize, Understand and Prevent


Dr. Jay Altman, DVM

[Editors Note: This is the second in a seven part series about horse digestive issues.]

Colic is the number one killer of horses. It can be life threatening in a relatively short period of time. Quickly and accurately recognizing the signs, and seeking qualified veterinary help can maximize the chance of a horse recovering from colic.

Colic is defined as abdominal pain that can range from mild to severe. There are a myriad of causes, however most fall into one of three groups:

  • Intestinal dysfunction. This is the most common cause, meaning the horse’s bowels are not working properly. It includes gas distention, impaction, spasms, and GI paralysis (lack of motility). In the majority of cases the dysfunction is in the large colon.
  • Intestinal accidents. Fortunately these occur less frequently and typically are more life threatening, almost always-requiring emergency surgery. It includes displacements, torsions, and bowel strangulations.
  • Enteritis, Colitis or ulcerations. Colic’s related to inflammation due to infection and/or ulcerations caused by numerous factors including stress, salmonellosis, toxins, and parasites.

Signs of Colic: varying greatly between horses, more common signs include:

  • Turning head toward the flank
  • Pawing
  • Kicking or biting abdomen
  • Stretching out as if to urinate without doing so
  • Laying down flat and not interested in food
  • Rolling, getting up and down
  • Absence of, or reduction in, digestive sounds
  • Elevated pulse rate (determine normal for your horse, usually 28-40bpm)
  • Lack of Bowel Movement
  • Lip curling (flehmen response)

If your horse is colicky remove all food and call your veterinarian. Time is perhaps the most critical factor. Sometimes people chose to see if symptoms would pass, and try walking the horse. This approach will only work in horses exhibiting only mild signs, and even in these may not work at all. Since time is so critical to successful treatment it is not recommended to wait too long when symptoms are persistent.

While your waiting for your veterinarian take the horse’s pulse, respiration, and temp. Check the color of mucous membranes, note behavior signs such as pawing etc. Make note of bowel movements, including color, consistency, and frequency. Recall any recent changes in your horses routine. Let the horse lie down, only if it appears to be resting quietly. If the horse is rolling or behaving violently, walk slowly. Do not administer drugs, including bute or banamine, unless your veterinarian advised you to. Medications will alter the physical exam performed by your vet, frequently masking a more critical colic that may require aggressive therapy or surgery, resulting in a time delay and success of treatment.

Impaction colic is a common cause of abdominal pain. Impaction is defined as obstruction of the bowels; this may be either large colon, or small colon. Impactions can occur in association with temperature change, which can result in reduction of water consumption and altered exercise regime. Also contributing to an impaction colic can be poor teeth, or a change in feeding routine- upsetting normal intestinal motility patterns. Sand impactions occur more frequently when horses lack adequate quality pasture or hay, or in certain geographic locations and anywhere during drought years. Also, inquisitive, bored, mouthy horses tend to take in more dirt, sand and silt and are more prone to sand accumulations leading to a sand colic or sand impaction.

Enteroliths (stones) can also cause obstruction, almost always-requiring surgery. These GI stones are found most often in the southwest and California due to minerals found in the soil. Foreign non- digestible material is another cause of obstruction. An example of this is horses eating rubberized or nylon fencing when it begins to unravel.

Most horses with impaction colic will respond to medical treatment involving administration of laxatives, fluids, and pain reducers. At times a severe impaction occurs and the signs of distress in the horse worsen with continued abdominal pain, increased heart and respiratory rates, and signs of shock. This escalating condition usually means that the patient’s original problem is worsening, or that the colic has undergone additional complications, such as a displacement of the colon and surgery is the only cure

Management to help Prevent Colic

While horses are predisposed to colic due to anatomy and function of their digestive tracts, management can play a key role in prevention. Horses are designed to graze on grass pasture most of the day, therefore feeding a quality diet comprised primarily of roughage (hay) helps maintain normal function of the GI tract. Clean available water is necessary. Avoid changing the feeding routine, including the type, amount, and time fed.

If a change is needed always make it a gradual change, by mixing old with new, each day increasing amount of new feed and decreasing amount of old. Watch for and avoid toxic substances, such as noxious weeds, blister beetles, moldy hay, and other ingestible foreign material. Recognize when your horse isn’t drinking water and/or has a reduced fecal output. To avoid sand ingestion use feeders or mats when feeding off the ground. For horses exposed to sand consider placing the horse on The Assure System®, a revolutionary sand removal product. Change the intensity/duration of an exercise regimen gradually. Maintain a good preventive health maintenance program, with the help of your veterinarian, including vaccination protocol, worming program, and dental care. Consider Assure® digestive aid as an approach to normalizing and conditioning the colon to reduce the incidence of colic.

Understandably the word colic scares many horse owners. It is important to realize the majority of colic’s can be treated medically and do not mean certain death. However, for a successful outcome, all colicky horses should be treated promptly and some cases are more serious, requiring expensive surgery. This is why it is critical to recognize the signs of abdominal pain, and maintain a good management program to minimize the risk of colic in your horses.

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About the author:

Dr. Altman has a life long history in the world of horses. In his early years he worked on ranches and farms in Oklahoma, Colorado, California, and along the east-coast states. In the early 1970’s he received his farriers certification from Oklahoma Farriers College. After certification, he spent time as an instructor at the college. After working as a race horse farrier on the east coast, he returned to Colorado to attend Colorado State University, where he studied animal science with the intent to enter veterinary medicine.

Once undergraduate studies were completed at CSU, he went on to Michigan State University to enter a graduate program in reproductive physiology. Through those years, he continued to own and raise sport horses, and ride hunters and jumpers as a hobby.

He returned to Colorado in 1989, to enter school in veterinary medicine. After completion of veterinary school he moved to Pennsylvania to enter a five doctor equine practice, specialized in racing thoroughbreds and sport horses, and was the area’s referral surgical facility. He then returned to Colorado to begin Equine Medical Service, an equine exclusive veterinary practice based in LaPorte. In October of 2000, he purchased Large Animal Veterinary Services, and integrated the two practices, which are now known as Equine Medical Service.

Dr. Altman specializes in equine dentistry and lameness, and enjoys working on medicine as well as surgical cases.

Horse Digestive Issues

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