Riding season has, thankfully, come again with the return of migratory geese and the turbo hummingbird. A good routine, vaccinations, deworming, and other care are essential. It is also crucial to recognize aspects of all too common illnesses, such as equine colic and respiratory influenza. Dr. Earl Gaughan, DVM, DACVS, outlined the symptoms and steps to possible recovery in a recent dinner presentation, sponsored by Countryside Veterinary Clinic, in Lowville, NY.
Dr. Gaughan’s presentation, The Horse With Colic: What Do We Do?, was fast paced, thorough, and up to date with graphic slides and years of expertise, plus a sense of humor, to enliven learning. The underlying, vital point is that horse owners, trainers and riders, need to be educated, to heed the signs and warnings, keep excellent records. “We don’t know exactly what causes a horse to colic in most cases. If one suspects colic, call the vet immediately!” states Gaughan.
Be able to do the basics — take a horse’s temperature and pulse (over 50 beats/minute is highly abnormal). Be able to administer Banamine — if needed, but write it down so that the arriving veterinarian knows FOR SURE what has or has not been done or detected. “Bute and Banamine are too often used and misused in horses,” says Gaughan. With an eight year old warm blood gelding showing signs of colic after a change in hay, the owners had given 80cc of Banamine before checking with the vet. This is a toxic level. More is not necessarily better! This horse had a mild impaction in his large intestine. A tube and mineral oil did the trick.
As Dr. Gaughan has said, “Colic is not a final diagnosis. It’s just a description of pain in the abdomen of horses. It’s vital to have determined the underlying cause of which there are many, but first be alert to symptoms.” Sometimes the horse, “Just isn’t right.” Does the horse show anxiety or depression? Sometimes the horse just paws the ground or stares at its flank. Some may play in the water bucket but not drink! Lack of appetite, lack of normal gut sounds, or lack of defecation or frequent attempts to urinate, excessive sweating are clues. “The astute observer knows what the horse is trying to tell us and the circumstances,” states the vet. And there’s more.
Sometimes the horse just lies down, and that’s okay, if the horse is quiet. Some horsemen will get the horse up to walk, and that may be all right, depending upon the level of discomfort. “There is no nerve reflex from the bottom of the horse’s foot to the colon. But walking may help relax the horse; it may keep him from hurting himself,” says the doctor.
“Some horses, however, are so uncomfortable that they throw themselves on the ground, kick and thrash; some run through the fence. Some can lose their mind with pain; some may look for another meal,” he explains. Different causes of colic result in a range of severity, from mild to lethal. Treatment ranges from basic to surgical to euthanasia in the most dire straits.
Colic is often a direct result of diet — and often preventable. Idiopathic colic is of unknown origin (80 percent of all colic). Non-idiopathic colic is where the cause becomes known. With impaction, there is accumulation in the horse’s colon of other indigestible materials. This blockage makes it difficult or impossible for the horse to properly dispose of waste. A second type is spasmodic (gas) where excess fluid or gas often has over-fermentation of food in the hindgut. It builds up in the digestive tract, which causes pressure and possible inflammation along the gastrointestinal line leading to discomfort, to say the least.
A gastric rupture is rare but the impaction reaches the stomach or gas build up causes the stomach to dilate. Enteritis is inflammation of the intestines, of which there are many causes: infection, viruses, bacteria. Strangulation/torsion is one of many “lethal forms” of colic. A twist in the colon or small intestines may cut off blood supply, resulting in necrotic tissue.
Intussusception is a form often caused by tapeworms and other parasites or foreign bodies. “It’s a very dangerous form of colic where the intestines slide within a portion of itself,” he explained. This is because a section is paralyzed; it requires urgent surgery. Regular fecal evaluation with parasite determination could prevent this. In fact, rather than blindly administering dewormer, it is far better to first have stool samples examined regularly to determine need.
Young horses may get colic because of what they ingest. (One swallowed a hay net!)The doctor once had removed a “rock” the size of a football. The cause of its development was unknown, perhaps from a tooth the horse had swallowed. A stall, paddock or field must be checked regularly for enticing but entrapping items, large or small.
Besides diet and sudden changes in diet or something indigestible taken in, horses in sandy paddocks or fields may be prone to sand colic. This is more true in the south west and California, but not unknown here. A radiograph is done to see sand in the bottom of the colon. A psyllium additive may help, but some research believes this is a myth. Fibrous, rough hay is preferred.
Dr. Gaughan presented graphic slides of horses with various causes of colic and the cure, if any. He reminded one that horses are naturally grass and leaf eaters. (Avoid red maple leaves in autumn and most ferns anytime.) Yet performance demands upon today’s horses mean they are often fed processed grains and sweet feed high in carbohydrates. This can lead to hindgut acidosis, resulting in lower pH in the colon and cecum. The higher acidity can modify delicate mucosal lining of the colon. This can lead to colon ulcers and allow endotoxins into the blood stream. This restricts blood flow to the colon and small intestines. The tissue can die, resulting in food blockage and induced colic.
This presentation will be continued in a future issue of Mane Stream.