Colic! This is a dreaded term for anyone who has had to deal with a serious bout of colic in his or her horse. This disruption of the horse's natural digestive process can range in severity from a case of simple discomfort to a truly and agonizingly life threatening condition. The purpose of this information sheet is to give the reader some perspective into this disorder, that can occur in any horse, and provide some insights as to how colic can be managed.
Colic is a general term which applies to two types of disruption of the horse's normal intestinal processes. Depending on the cause of the colic, the horse may be experiencing a digestive spasm (temporary hyperactivity of the digestive tract) or his intestinal activity may be reduced.
Increased activity colic, or hyperperistalsis, can be caused by excessive parasites (worms), eating moldy or spoiled hay, grain or forage, and in colic spasms in some mares can be triggered by heat cycles and pregnancies. Note 1
Decreased activity colic, or hypoperistalsis or aperistalsis, can be caused by excessive parasites (worms), excessive increase in grains (such as the horse getting into the grain barrel), sudden feed changes, feeding grain to an exhausted horse, allowing a very hot horse too much water, dental problems (improperly ground up feed) and ingestion of foreign bodies and materials (including dust and sand).
In the wild, horses get dehydrated, ingest sand and dust when they graze and one would think colic would be a regular problem. However horses in the wild are always in motion, moving from place to place to graze, make trips to their water holes, and so forth. Also range forage is what the horse evolved to eat and is less likely to "tip" a horse's digestive balance.
The worst colic I have ever experienced was with a 6 month old colt whose owners fed regular rations of dry bran. It took two weeks of literally around the clock care (people took shifts, including camping out in pickup trucks and walking the colt every hour) and several visits by the vet to pull him through. The colt never gave up and neither did his owners nor did we, and he grew up to be a healthy adult. One must always bear in mind that everything a horse is provided to eat affects its digestion, and NEVER feed a horse dry bran!
Typical Signs and Symptoms
IMPORTANT NOTE: This information is somewhat general in nature so that the reader can gain a better understanding of colic. It is not intended to supersede or replace consultation and discussion with a licensed veterinarian, nor is it intended to encourage the reader to postpone calling a veterinarian if he/she suspects any condition which is beyond his/her customary experience and ability to control.
Since each horse is different and varied environmental conditions can influence both the types of colics which may present themselves as well as their treatment, we hope that this presentation motivates you to discuss colic with your veterinarian as well as the observations and procedures which apply to your situation.
Most horses will show some restlessness or uneasiness as the digestive process starts to go awry. As the discomfort increases a horse may paw, look at his flanks, nip at his flanks, kick at his abdomen, keep getting up and lying down, roll or stretch into odd positions, stand and rest in odd positions, rock back against a solid object and repeatedly change weight on the hind legs.Oftentimes the first noticeable difference between a resting horse and a colicing horse who is laying quietly on the ground is unusual and frequent jaw movements such as partial yawns, rocking of the lower jaw, raising of the upper lip and curling of the tongue when the mouth is open. As the colic intensifies, the symptoms usually become more pronounced. As the heart and breathing rates increase and the inner eyelids become congested (show a brick-brown to a bright red color), you are rapidly approaching a terminal situation.
If you hear significant amounts of gas rumbling when you place your ear to the horse's abdomen and the horse is passing manure, you are most likely seeing an increased activity colic. Unless the horse has already gone into shock or is passing a great deal of diarrhea, the outcome is usually favorable when proper care is provided.
If you hear decreased gut sounds, the horse is not passing manure and the horse appears to be in acute pain, these are usually "red alert" symptoms of a decreased activity colic and a veterinarian's assistance, and the medications he/she can provide, are probably of vital importance. In cases of sand or dust impaction, the horse may show early signs of diarrhea but all other signs are of decreased activity. In this instance, only the fluids are making it past the sand or dust obstruction.
If you suspect sand or dust in your horse, take a zip-lock food storage bag, turn it inside out over your hand and pick up two or three relatively fresh and clean manure balls. Turn the bag right side out again and squish up the balls. (If the manure balls feel unusually hard when you squish them, you probably have a dehydration impaction rather than a sand problem.) Fill the bag about half full with water and pin or clip the bag to hang on a post or wall. After a few minutes inspect the bag and see if sand or dust has settled out of the manure. Discuss these findings with your vet and let him/her see your manure test when he/she arrives.
There are several things which you can do to improve your horse's chances BEFORE he colics. Discuss colic with your veterinarian, what to look for, what "standing orders" he/she has for you until you can reach him/her, what symptoms to describe when making the call and what medications you should keep on hand (and how to administer them). Know how to take pulse and respiration counts and how to listen for gut sounds. Know and record what is "normal" for your horse. When you suspect colic, be able to take these "vital signs" and be able to describe to your vet how they compare with your horse's normal signs when you first place the call for help. Realize that with good information, your vet may recommend a course of action which you can undertake yourself in mild cases, or in more severe instances, your vet may realize that you have a true emergency, not just "another colic," and perhaps can rearrange his/her schedule to get to you more promptly.
Assess the situation. What has recently happened (the probable cause of the colic)?
Take vital signs.
If things don't look good, and especially if it appears that you are approaching "red alert" conditions (as agreed upon by your vet and you), immediately phone your vet with your findings.
Don't medicate the horse unless it is part of your veterinarian's "standing orders."
Keep the animal quiet and try to prevent him from hurting himself. He may need to lie down or even roll from time to time to help relieve pressure and move gas bubbles. If he is not thrashing, this is not necessarily bad and if done between walking sessions, it may even be beneficial.
Quiet walking for 10 to 20 minutes per hour may help distract the horse from the pain and particularly in the case of an impaction, can help "move things along," but do not mount the horse and force exercise him! Unnecessary stress can sometimes develop fatal complications!
Do not let the horse eat hay. However, providing a warm bran mash Note 2 with ground up aspirin or phenylbutazone (bute) can often get the animal through without use of heavy drugs. (Don't give your horse any oral medications, however, unless it is part of your veterinarian's "standing orders.") If within 30 minutes of eating the bran mash the horse is not showing signs of improvement, call your veterinarian.
If aspirin or bute is part of your "standing orders" and the horse will not eat the bran mash, you can either administer bute paste (like administering a wormer EXCEPT you only administer a small portion of the tube according to label directions) or grind the aspirin or bute into a powder, mix with a small dollop of honey and daub the mixture with your finger into the corner of the horse's mouth.
We must repeat: The administration of any drugs, including aspirin, should be done only after consultation with your vet or under "standing orders," as these medications will affect the appearance of your horse to the veterinarian during the exam (mask the horse's real symptoms) and in some cases may impact what drugs the veterinarian can use once he/she arrives.
If you suspect colic and the symptoms you observe indicate that a digestive problem is occurring and is getting worse, you should always contact your veterinarian. However there may be cases where you cannot reach a vet, or perhaps you in a situation where you don't even have a phone! The horse may well need some relief from pain so that his intestinal muscles can relax and the gas or obstruction can resume its journey. In such circumstances the following suggestions are offered by James Naviaux, DVM, in his book Horses in Health and Disease:
Offer a bran mash with aspirin and attempt to reach any large animal vet that you can. If veterinary care is not available within 4 to 8 hours, the careful administration of 16 oz. of Milk of Magnesia with a "turkey basting syringe" is indicated. This can be done by holding the horse's head slightly elevated while slowly expressing the contents of the syringe into the corner of the horse's mouth. Allow the horse to make voluntary swallows. Do not attempt to give this medication while the horse is lying down. Do not attempt to give mineral oil by mouth as it is relatively tasteless and can get into the lungs easily, resulting in death. Too often colics are "overtreated" by less experienced persons which have contributed to the horses' deaths.
Note: If your horse experiences sand or dust colics, it may be more appropriate to administer psyllium mucilloid instead of bran, however the choice depends a great deal on your horse's history and the actual symptoms which you are seeing. (If your horse is passing manure but it doesn't look right, contains a lot of sand, and the horse is uncomfortable, then proper doses of psyllium can help push the sand along. However if your horse is only passing liquid, the bulk fiber of psyllium could possibly "plug" the slight passage of liquid moving past an impaction (firm obstruction) and make matters worse.) Again, the value of "what to do" discussions with your vet and establishing "standing orders" in advance of such emergencies cannot be overstated!
The best cure for colic is prevention!
Manage your horse's diet. Give him good quality feed with adequate roughage and avoid sudden changes. Dispose of suspect feed and grains. Don't let other people feed ANYTHING to your horse without your knowledge and permission.
Keep grains secure and out of reach
Provide the horse with regular exercise, either voluntary (e.g., in an active pasture) or controlled (e.g., turnouts and/or riding).
Don't over water a very hot horse. Give him enough water for about 12 swallows and then come back again later. (If you are riding the horse, as out on trail, you can reasonably increase this intake if you are continuing your ride after the water stop.)
Make sure your horse is drinking properly, especially during unusual weather changes. Many horses tend to reduce their drinking during cooler months, then during an unusually warm day they can sweat unnoticed and become dehydrated. A horse that is chilled by a sudden cold spell may similarly not drink enough.
Make sure your horse has adequate water, that automatic waterers are working, that buckets and barrels are full of fresh water and that they aren't contaminated with manure or a dead mouse, or some other foreign object that would cause your horse to avoid drinking.
When cold weather sets in, wet the feed and provide warmer than air temperature water when possible.
Exercise prevention in the case of horses which tend to ingest dust or sand. Regular doses of psyllium mucilloid can help purge the intestinal tract of sand and dust buildup and few preventive activities are better than regular exercise.
If you suspect a severe parasite problem, discuss treatment with your veterinarian prior to administering any wormers. A sudden influx of "dead worms" in your horse's system can have toxic effects. Some wormers contain "rapid kill" chemicals and could be quite harmful. It is usually more appropriate to first dose a suspected wormy horse with a "slow kill" wormer, then follow up in a few weeks with a rapid kill wormer. New wormers are constantly coming on the market and some occasionally get reformulated so it is impractical to post a list of fast and slow kill wormers. Your veterinarian should be able to provide current advice and the veterinary pharmaceutical companies usually have qualified personnel who can give practical advice as to the correct product and dosage for your animal.
We typically use "Vita Bran" or red flaky wheat bran for bran mashes. We put up to a one pound coffee can of bran into a feed tub, add some ground hay and/or shaved carrots for flavor, then add hot water to which a modest amount of molasses has been added to make the mash enticing. We stir the mixture, adding more water a little at a time until it becomes the consistency of sloppy oatmeal. If the mix is too runny or the horse is especially picky, we will add small amounts of "complete feed" ration to give it some body, but the mixture should still be moist and slightly "loose". (Count on most horses making a big, sloppy mess when they eat it!)
In the event you can't get your hands on red flaky wheat bran, Dr. Naviaux suggests using half a box of 100% or 40% "All Bran" cereal. He also recommends 2 tablespoons of baking soda, and if your veterinarian approves or is not available, 10 ground up or dissolved aspirins.
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