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Equine Colic: Nutrition Part 2

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Equine Colic: Nutrition Part 2

colic horse

As promised, we are continuing our discussion on equestrian nutrition with a specific focus on equine colic.  Colic is one of those words that brings up views of horses rolling on the ground, biting at their stomachs, and pawing the ground.  This common abdominal disease ranges in severity from mild, needing a single dose of medication, to severe, sometimes leading to the animal's death.  I hope to teach you what the most common causes are for colic, symptoms that can help you recognize that colic is occurring, and the treatments that your veterinarian will take your horse through.  On that note, I am not a veterinarian and this article is a result of researching credible sources and sitting through lectures because sometimes I miss school.  :)

First of all, what is colic?  Colic by definition is used to define abdominal pain in general, hence why it is also used to describe a human baby's abdominal discomfort.  In horses it is used to describe a serious condition mostly caused by Spasmodic (gas) or Impaction in the digestive system.  As discussed in our last nutrition blog, horses have a one-way flow when it comes to their digestive tract.  Once food, water, or dirt enter in, they have about a three day journey until they find their exit.  A horse that is allowed to roam freely in a pasture is less likely to have colic issues than their stalled counterparts because they are moving more and they are eating small amounts all day.  Stalled horses have a tendency to not move as much and to eat quickly when they are fed, both of which can lead to a higher occurrence of colic.  Other causes of colic are: dehydration, over feeding, irregular feeding, sudden changes in feed type, bad feed, fine grain, ingestion of too much sand, poisons, parasitism, twisted intestines, and intussusception (one part of the intestines falls into another- more common in foals and older horses).

Colic Horse biting stomach

So, the big question, how do you know if your horse is experiencing equine colic?  Colic is a timed event.  Horses can be cured from impaction or spasmodic colic, but every second counts.  This is why it is imperative you call your vet when you first suspect your horse is experiencing colic.  Some signs to look out for is your horse might be displaying anxiety, depression, or might seem off from their normal personality.  Other behavioral signs of colic are: Pawing the ground, staring at their flank, biting at their stomach or chest, playing in the water but not drinking, a lack of appetite (nobody likes to eat when their stomach hurts), excessively sweating, lack of defecation (this is a big sign!), frequently attempting to urinate, pointing their ears back towards their stomach, and the controversial desire to want to lie down or roll.  I say controversial because it has long been believed that allowing your horse to roll would put them at risk for twisting their intestines.  There is now some research showing that rolling can actually allow the horse to stretch the intestines or aid in relieving gas pains.  More research is needed, but the general populace probably responds the same way, make them walk.  The reason behind this thought pattern of "keep them moving" is that walking encourages the natural process of peristalsis, the slow, automatic movement of digestion through the body.  Your vet will be able to help you make that call on what to do based on their experience and expertise.

Some symptoms that will very helpful to be able to relay to your vet is the respiratory rate, mucous membrane color, and heart rate of your horse.  Normal respiratory rate should be around 12 breaths per minute for a resting adult horse.  Try to count how many breaths your horse takes in about a 15-20 second interval and then multiply accordingly to get a breaths per minute calculation.  A quick look at your horses gums should reveal a nice healthy, pale pink, but if the color is more of a red, really white, or a purple ring around teeth then your horse could be suffering from poor blood flow, dehydration, or poor oxygen levels in the blood.  A normal resting heart rate for an adult horse is around 40 beats per minute.  A pulse that is above 50 beats per minute on an adult horse is one of the signs that your horse is in a colic state and experiencing stress.  An easy way to check your horse's pulse using their transverse facial artery is to follow these steps:

1. Standing at your horse's left side, use your fingertips to feel the space along your horse's jawbone under his cheek for a cord-like structure about the thickness of a pencil. It is located directly below and slightly behind the front corner of your horse's eye. This is his transverse facial artery, and you will feel it move around under his skin.

Transverse Facial Artery2. Curl your middle and ring fingers toward your palm, gently pressing the cord against the inside of his left jawbone. (Note: Do not use your thumb--you will feel your own pulse instead of your horse's!)


3. Once you feel his pulse, count the number of beats you feel while looking at the second hand on your watch to note when 15 seconds has elapsed. Multiply the number of pulses you count by four. This will give you his total beats per minute.

When your vet arrives they will take an assessment along with asking you detailed questions about your horse's behavior.   A dosage of Banamine (flunixin meglumine) might be given to try and ease abdominal pain caused by Spasmodic (gas) colic.  Your vet may then decide to slightly sedate your horse to make them more comfortable and make it safer to perform more invasive diagnostics.  They may then perform a rectal exam. This exam allows the vet to actually palpate the large colon of the horse to determine if any portions are overextended due to a buildup of gas or if a portion of the colon is twisted. The vet may also insert a nasogastric (NG) tube. This is a long plastic tube that is inserted through the horse’s nostril and down his esophagus into the stomach. This can allow some relief of the gas pressure in the gut (essentially giving the gas and fluids another escape route), and also allow administration of fluids directly into the stomach (such as water, electrolytes, or mineral oil).  Varying tests may be run to determine the correct next step in treatment for your horse.  IV fluids may be necessary if the horse is dehydrated or in shock from the colic episode.  In impaction colic, the goal of the treatment is to remove the cause of impaction, of course.  Usually your vet will use a mineral oil or other type of laxative to dislodge the impaction.  The horse will be held off of feed until they have defecated, which is a clear sign that the impaction has passed.  If your veterinarian suspects a twisted bowel, then surgery is required.  The outcome of surgical colic cases is very dependent on how long the colic has been going on, the age and condition of the horse, and the location of the blockage in the digestive tract.   

Colic is unfortunately a common disease that many owners will face in the lifetime of their horses.  Thankfully, most cases have a good prognosis and the horse will make a full recovery.  I hope you can now better recognize the signs and symptoms so you can make your time count when it comes to colic.  

Let us know what you think!  Have you had experiences with colic??  What steps did you and your vet take?  

Written by Kara Grimes

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