What Is Horse Colic

Horse ColicColic. This one short word encompasses an array of digestive-tract problems and strikes fear in the heart of horse owners. Mark Finke, DVM, discusses ways horse owners can prevent colic complications.


Mark Finke, DVM, is the primary emergency veterinarian for Colorado Equine Veterinary Services in Peyton, Colorado. Frantic late-night calls describing a horse in pain are routine for the Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine graduate.

“I see a lot of colic,” says Finke. “To me, colic is a symptom. There are many, many causes of colic-type symptoms and you can’t pinpoint it to a certain disease process. Really, ‘colic’ is a layman’s term that describes many different gastrointestinal problems.”

Finke grew up in Kentucky and worked at Thoroughbred farms and equine hospitals in Lexington. While in school, he worked at Reata Equine Hospital in Weatherford, Texas. His geography may have changed, but colic cases are similar in all areas.

“Colic is complicated, though the symptoms present the same—a horse in pain or distress that is kicking or biting its flanks or belly, pawing, and is up and down or rolling,” he says. “If you want to give your horse the best chance to come through colic, get your veterinarian on the phone.”

Before a horse shows signs of colic, horse owners should be aware of the potential causes and know how to prevent problems. Finke says common sense paired with knowledge of your horse’s daily routine is most important to keeping a horse healthy.  Confined horses with a decreased amount of time to forage can have a higher likelihood of developing colic-like symptoms. Photo: Ross HecoxConfined horses with a decreased amount of time to forage can have a higher likelihood of developing colic-like symptoms. Photo: Ross Hecox

• SandMost Western states are experiencing drought conditions, and this causes an upswing in the number of sand colic or sand enteritis cases. Enteritis is anything that causes inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract, says Finke. One way to prevent sand intake is to position the horse’s feed source away from the ground, and to make sure the horse is getting adequate nutrition to keep it from foraging in the dirt.

“Horses were designed to forage out on pasture and graze grass about 75 percent of the day,” Finke says. “We have domesticated horses and put them in stalls where they do not have the opportunity to graze and are fed concentrated feed and higher-quality hay. When horses do get on pasture, they are driven to graze though there isn’t much to consume.”

Drought conditions cause poor vegetation and decreased grass growth, yet, horses are still on pasture and attempt to graze.

“The horses are eating what grass there is down to the root, and that increases sand intake,” Finke says. “Most of our clients supplemented hay this year, but the same thing happens when hay is thrown on the ground. One way to decrease sand intake is to feed out of a hay feeder and also put mats on the ground. When the horse cleans up the hay dropped from the feeder, the mat keeps it from eating off sand.”

Finke says horses that develop a rough hair coat, have frequent diarrhea, lose weight or fail to gain weight though fed an adequate diet show signs of possible sand intake or sand enteritis.

“Diagnosing sand in the digestive tract is one of the simplest and cheapest diagnoses,” says Finke. “Instead of normal gut noises, the sand causes a sound that is literally like waves crashing into the shore.”

By listening with a stethoscope, the veterinarian can determine if sand is in the tract and then prescribe a psyllium protocol (a high-fiber supplement that pushes sand out of the tract) to prevent complications.

“Horses that are eating as much as two horses but not gaining weight are likely candidates for sand enteritis. The sand causes malabsorption and disrupts the nutrient intake,” he says.

“There are often more significant signs of sand [enteritis] in older or younger horses because of nutritional needs. Younger horses require more [nutrients] because they are growing. Older horses may not absorb all the nutrients because of dental problems that prevent chewing properly. These horses will forage more to compensate.”

Good husbandry can help prevent possible sand intake, and awareness of your horse’s body condition can keep sand enteritis from developing into a colic case, he adds.• Dehydration“Impaction” is a term veterinarians use to describe a buildup of food that fails to move through the digestive tract. The symptoms present similarly to other types of colic, but impactions are often a complication of dehydration.

“I had an impaction last week where a reining horse was moved from its owner’s barn to a horse trainer,” Finke says. “I suspect the horse was stressed from change, working a lot harder than normal and the water source was different. The horse developed significant dehydration.”

Changes in water taste at a new facility or extreme changes in weather can cause a horse to stop drinking.

“With an impaction, you get a variable tug of war between the intestinal tract and the vascular system,” he explains. “When a horse gets dehydrated, its blood volume is lacking water and it responds by pulling water from the intestinal tract, resulting in dry manure. That means the horse has less water in the colon and it is basically like being constipated. Restoring hydration is vital for the horse to pass the impaction.”

Finke says a rectal exam often confirms impaction, and administering fluids and electrolytes can be enough to return the intestinal system to normal function. However, the underlying problem of dehydration should be addressed by looking at the horse’s access to water and encouraging it to drink an adequate amount.

“I recommend salt and trace mineral blocks be located near a water source,” Finke says. “First, watch where your horses stand to get out of the sun or harsh weather. Make sure that a salt block and water source are in that area [to encourage water consumption].

“Also, one of the things I stress with clients who put electrolytes in the horse’s water source is to also put out a bucket of only water. It’s like only having Gatorade to drink. Pretty soon, your body is going to crave water and not want Gatorade. If water is not available, the horse will stop drinking altogether.”• Stress Performance horses and horses healing from injuries are susceptible to stress complications, including stomach ulcers. Ulcers can be the culprit in a horse that shows frequent colic symptoms but does not have sand in the intestine or an impaction.

“Signs of ulcers are frequent, mild cases of colic, a horse that is a picky eater or is less energetic,” Finke says. “Behavior changes are indications of painful stomach ulcers.

“My preferred method of diagnosing ulcers is to scope the horse so I can see what I am dealing with. Another method is the SUCCEED fecal blood sample [a test system developed by Freedom Health]. If ulcers are found, they must be allowed to heal through medical therapy.”

There are four grades of stomach ulcers, and in Finke’s experience, the middle and higher grades are often diagnosed in horses with severe symptoms. Horses recovering from colic or colic surgery are susceptible to developing ulcers because in addition to stress and pain, food is withheld, causing a buildup of stomach acid.

“My protocol for colic is no feed for 12 to 24 hours and then a gradual return over a 10-hour period so the horse doesn’t relapse,” says Finke. “A horse that is off feed has a higher amount of acid in the stomach, and the saliva and food are not present to neutralize it.

“If economics allowed for it, I would give UlcerGuard to every horse that comes to the hospital for long-term treatment. We treat ulcers with UlcerGard or GastroGard. The active ingredient is like Prilosec in people, and it blocks the cellular pumps in the stomach that make acid.

“Ballpark, to treat ulcers for the 28-day cycle, it can be $900. Clients want to know why they can’t use a human version, but it is not effective at blocking the acid production.”

If left untreated, ulcers cause the horse pain and result in long-term problems in the gastrointestinal tract.

“It is important to understand the complexity of colic and have your veterinarian find or get a feel for the primary cause of colic,” says Finke. “Sometimes a one-time treatment at the farm is enough, but sometimes surgery is the only option.

“Some colic is inevitable, but there are things owners can do to cut colic possibilities and prevent a potential problem.” For more on Mark Finke, DVM, or Colorado Equine Veterinary Services, visit coloradoequinevet.com.


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