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Equine Colic Update

Are you prepared for this equine emergency?

Colicking horse
© Paula Da Silva/

Colic is frightening, and for good reason. It can come on without warning, often without an obvious cause. And while the vast majority of horses recover, most without surgery, it can be fatal.

If your horse colics, your actions can help ensure that he survives. In this article, Janet Johnston, DVM, a staff veterinarian who focuses on gastrointestinal disease at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center, explains what to expect and how to handle this emergency. (For some tips on preventing colic, see "Block Colic" below.)

What You'll See
The classic signs of colic tell you that your horse is in pain. Pay attention if he

  • goes off his feed and shows little interest in grass.
  • curls his lip, grinds his teeth or shows other signs of mild distress.
  • doesn't pass manure in a normal time span—overnight, for example.
  • passes hard, dry manure or has diarrhea.
  • paws the ground or stands stretched out with his legs parked out in front and behind.
  • repeatedly turns to look at his flank or nips or kicks at his belly.
  • lies down and gets up (or tries to roll) repeatedly or sits on his haunches like a dog.
  • progresses to persistent rolling, which can be violent.

Not every colicking horse will show all these signs. Cases vary and, like people, some horses are more stoic than others in the face of pain. A little investigation may turn up other indicators. Check for

  • abnormal gut sounds. "It's a good idea to invest in an inexpensive stethoscope and be familiar with your horse's normal gut sounds before he shows signs of colic," Dr. Johnston says. Listen on each side by placing the stethoscope (or, in a pinch, your ear) at his flank, in front of and below the point of his hip. Normally, you'll hear several gurgles a minute with a louder rumble every minute or two. Silence is not good; neither is excessive noise.
  • elevated heart rate. Move the stethoscope to his chest, beneath his left elbow, to check his heart rate. (Or, without a stethoscope, find his pulse at the facial artery where it runs across the jawbone.) Using a watch with a second hand, count beats for 10 seconds and multiply by six to get the rate. A resting rate above 50 beats per minute indicates distress.
  • abnormal temperature. A rectal temperature over 102 F may indicate infection or inflammation.

The signs don't tell you what's going on inside. Your horse's gut may be distended by gas, blocked or even twisted. (See "Inside Story" on page 2 for details.) If gas is the only problem, he'll be better when he passes it. But some other conditions are life threatening. Since you can't know at the outset exactly what you're dealing with, take any sign of colic seriously.

What to Do
"If your horse is mildly uncomfortable and quiet—not trying to roll—it's probably safe to watch him for a short period," Dr. Johnston says. "If he's in greater pain or if his discomfort persists after an hour or two, that warrants a call to your veterinarian." If you're in doubt, call and explain your horse's signs—it's better to be proactive. Meanwhile,

  • take food away. "Impactions are a common cause of colic, and you don't want your horse to eat anything that might add to an obstruction," says Dr. Johnston.
  • keep a close eye on him. His signs may take a turn for the worse or seem to improve but then return, so watch for changes. "As long as he's quiet, let him rest in his stall—constant walking just exhausts people and horses," Dr. Johnston advises. But walk him if he tries to roll. "You want to prevent rolling because that could displace the colon, turning a simple gas colic into a more serious case," she says.
  • give a single dose of Banamine (flunixin meglumine) if your veterinarian agrees and you have this prescription medication on hand. Banamine, a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug, seems to ease belly pain and may help your horse weather a mild colic episode. "Some people advise against this out of concern that the drug will mask signs of a potentially surgical colic, but in my opinion, one dose won't do that," Dr. Johnston says. A safe dosage rate is 1 milligram per kilogram of body weight, or 500 milligrams for a typical adult horse, every 12 hours.
  • don't repeat the dose. "Keep in mind that it will be half an hour to an hour before the drug takes effect, so don't give a second dose if your horse isn't better right away," says Dr. Johnston. "Higher doses and multiple doses may mask serious signs."

Don't wait to call the veterinarian if your horse doesn't improve in a couple of hours or if his signs worsen or return. "Often people find the horse sick in the morning, watch him all day and then decide as night is coming on that it's time to get help. That's not good for anyone, especially the horse," Dr. Johnston says. "In a surgical case, there's a window of opportunity, a matter of a few hours, before serious damage occurs."

Block Colic

Cut colic risks with smart management:

Control intestinal parasites. Strongyles and other parasites can damage your horse's intestines and are a top colic cause. Work with your veterinarian to set up a deworming and parasite-control program.

Make sure he drinks. Water keeps food moving through his gut. If your horse doesn't drink enough, he's at risk for an impaction. Give him continual access to clean water. Offering salt, feeding mashes or soaked feed and warming water in cold weather are ways to increase -water consumption.

Feed forage. Your horse's digestive system is set up to process high-fiber forage like hay and grass. Large amounts of grain may raise the risk of gas and impaction. Meet most of his nutritional needs with forage, and divide his concentrates into several small feedings a day.

Avoid feed changes. Changes in concentrates or hay—or sudden access to pasture—can trigger colic. Gas production often increases as the beneficial microbes in your horse's gut adjust. When you do make a change, do it gradually over a period of days.

Turn him out. Light exercise and constant nibbling during turnout help keep the intestines in good working order.

Stick to a routine. Abrupt changes in lifestyle are linked to increased colic risk, so be as consistent as possible in work, feeding and turnout schedules. If there's a big change—stall rest, a move to a new barn, travel to a competition—be alert to the risks.

Don't rush meals. When your horse exercises, his circulation sends blood away from the digestive tract to his muscles. He also sweats, losing fluid. Follow the one-hour rule—wait an hour after feeding before you ride, and wait an hour after riding before you feed.

Check his environment. Patrol for bits of plastic and baling twine or other debris your horse could accidentally ingest. Check for poisonous plants and signs that he's chewing fences or other objects.

Cut sand intake. If your horse is fed in a sandy paddock, put his hay in a rack with rubber mats below. If he's turned out in an area with sandy soil, consider feeding a psyllium supplement. Psyllium turns into a gel when wet and may help move sand through the gut.

Arrange a dental checkup. If your horse can't chew his feed properly, he's at greater risk for impaction.

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