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The Daily Vet by petMD

The Daily Vet is a blog featuring veterinarians from all walks of life. Every week they will tackle entertaining, interesting, and sometimes difficult topics in the world of animal medicine – all in the hopes that their unique insights and personal experiences will help you to understand your pets.

A Case for Colic, Part 1

For all but the most novice horse owners, the word "colic" sends shivers down the spine. This word is like "shark" for divers, or "oops" to a skydiver — well, maybe not that dramatic, but you get the point. Being a horse owner means that at some point during your horse owning tenure, you will encounter colic.

Firstly, let’s get some terminology straight. The word "colic" simply means abdominal pain. A horse that is acting colicky is having abdominal pain, which may be caused by a myriad of things. Not one case of colic is ever created equal and although the word colic is thrown around as a diagnosis, it’s really truly just a clinical sign. But to be practical — on the farm, to the horse, to the owner, and to the vet (me) — colic is colic.

Horses demonstrate some pretty distinct signs when they are having abdominal pain. One of the classic signs of colic is rolling; the horse will get up and down, act restless and roll, sometimes violently. I’ve heard of horses ramming themselves into walls as they roll. I remember one patient of mine in vet school, a gorgeous gray Quarter Horse stallion named Corona, that came in for colic surgery — he had rolled so violently that one of his eyes was swollen shut (don’t worry, he recovered!).

In addition to rolling, horses will often paw the ground and splash in their water buckets. It’s like they’re trying to say: I know something’s wrong but I don’t know what to do. They will also look at their flanks and may even bite at themselves. Usually the horse will not want to eat and won’t pass any manure.

Before we get much farther, let’s take a minute to discuss the general causes of colic. A horse can have gut pain because there is a blockage in the intestine, usually dry manure — this is called impaction colic. This can happen when the horse isn’t drinking enough water (like in the winter), or when the horse doesn’t have enough roughage in his diet, or even when he ingests sand, something more frequent in the southwestern U.S. A horse can also have a spastic colic from excessive gas build up (haven’t we all been there!). This tends to happen more in the spring, with the diet change to lush pasture. Lastly, and worst of all, a horse can have a twist, meaning a portion of the intestine has physically twisted over itself, causing constriction of blood vessels and buildup of fluid and gas. Many times, there’s no explanation for why this happens. Luckily, this last scenario is not as common as the other two.

So, now that we know how to identify colic and understand the basis of what causes it, what the heck can we do to treat it? Here’s where I come in. When I get a colic call, I have some very specific things I do. After an initial physical exam and thorough history from the owner, I get out the following: sedation, long gloves and a long plastic tube. Doesn’t this sound like fun?

After sedating the horse, I do a rectal exam (hence the looonnnggg glove). This allows me to actually feel part of the horse’s colon, telling me if there’s excessive gas or fluid buildup. If there’s an impaction, sometimes you can actually feel that too. After this, I grab my long plastic tube, also called a nasogastric tube. I carefully stick this up the horse’s nostril (and I mean carefully, because if you inadvertently bump the horse’s sinuses, they bleed like a stuck pig, erm, horse), and feed it down the esophagus into the top of the stomach. Then I wait. I’m waiting for gastric reflux. If there’s fluid that comes back out of the tube, we’re in trouble. This means the horse’s gut is so backed up that fluid is pooling in the stomach. Because horses can’t vomit, their stomachs can actually rupture. (It’s tough being a horse sometimes.)

After these things are done, I’ve formed a pretty good idea of what might be causing the colic (impaction versus twist versus gas) and how to begin to manage the case. Visit next week for Part 2 when I’ll discuss treatment options. Until then, I’ll leave you in suspense by offering these two sneak peaks: I’ll describe Dr. Anna’s Manure Dance and introduce you to something on the surgical floor known as "Sparky" (I’ll bet you ten bucks it’s not what you think!).

Dr. Anna O’Brien

Image: Anastasija Popova / via Shutterstock

Comments  4

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  • Horses Can't Vomit?
    05/25/2012 06:56am

    That's a fascinating trivia tidbit. Why can't horses vomit? Is this also true of other critters?

    I am anxiously awaiting your next post, especially to hear about Dr. Anna’s Manure Dance.

  • 05/25/2012 07:44pm

    I think that the muscles in a horses stomach and surrounding it only contract in a certain way that inhibits the muscle movement necessary to thrust stomach contents back up into the esophagus. Their digestive system is on a "one way tract" sort of speaking. One way in, one way through, one way out. I may not be correct about this, but I was told/taught this at some point in my 45 year love for horses (all animals for that matter...except snakes, frogs, lizards, reptiles [don't dislike them, just don't want to be in close proximity because they scare the heck out of me]) LOL!

  • Colic in Horses is Scary
    05/25/2012 07:06pm

    At least when you are dealing with an infant who has a bout of colic, you know it will EVENTUALLY ease up. However, in my experience, when I have a horse that starts to colic, it usually becomes a regular issue that comes on without warning... again and again. I will never sell a horse that has had colic because I know it will be a continuing issue; perhaps not often, but it does return. I have rescued many horses that were starved and I often see colic issues as they begin to recover and then usually throughout their lifespan. One vet told me that it is like taking a starving person and then feeding them stake, pizza and cotton candy for their first real meal. So, over the years I have learned to use more roughage and feed with less molasses. Although I find that colic is an ongoing issue with a horse, I have learned to recognize more subtle signs that allow me to start addressing the colic earlier. My horses tend to yawn-like, lifting their upper lip and showing their upper teeth. They also become fidgity and restless and as the symptoms get worst, they begin to go down on their their front knees then get up again (over and over). I had one small palomino that I could actually hear her gut sounds (like the moo of a calf) an acre away and she would often go down. I cannot remember how many times we had to force her up and slap her rump to get her walking around (which is suppose to help with colic or prevent twisting??). She was a rescue and we had her for 5 years. I halter and lead rope broke her, but I never had her saddle/riding trained, nor would I have ever bread her because I felt it would be to hard on her given her digestive issues (heat made it worst). She was more of a pet. We lost her due to colic issues after 5 years. But one important discovery I made in assisting her over the years with colic/colic pain was that the leaves of Mulberry trees were GREAT and worked quickly to ease her discomfort. Strange, I know, but it helped. Luckily the trees began to sprout big leaves (and berries) around the same time the spring/summer heat started... AND I have two sons who could climb those trees faster than a little monkey!! I no longer rescue and rehab horses (single mom and both boys now in college and out of the house)! However, I do not miss the colic nightmares. I apologize for the length of my comment... just a subject I can really relate to.

  • 05/25/2012 07:21pm

    Just one more thing: My vet never suggested surgery... euthanasia once, but never surgery on my horses. Perhaps he did not have the technology to operate on large animals, but given that we live in S. Louisiana and he did practice small and large animal veterinary medicine, one would think... 411: he isn't my vet anymore, but it was his attitude that caused me to part ways.

    Do many people, who are not horse breeders or raise/train race horses, usually opt for surgery? I guess what I'm asking is how do you perform abdominal surgery on a horse and do ordinary people with one or two riding horses often have the finances to cover such a procedure... I would assume it is costly??

    Thanks,
    Amanda


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