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Equine Colic — Summer 2008 | Out Here Magazine

Know the signs before it's too late

By Laura Sewell

You stroll into the barn to greet your horse, and upon reaching his stall, see the first sign of trouble: he's skipped breakfast. He never does that.

What comes to mind is a word most horse owners dread — colic.

Equine colic is an umbrella term for serious abdominal pain in horses. Colic's causes are virtually unlimited, ranging from dietary changes to twisted intestines, says Dr. Bob Rednour, of Youngsville, N.C., a veterinarian specializing in large animal care.

But three culprits claim most of the blame.

"About 80 percent of colics are hydration-related," Rednour says. "Horses prefer water between 40 and 80 degrees. If their water is too cold, it's like eating ice cream in the winter."

Without sufficient water consumption, he says, food can become impacted in the horse's digestive system. The same holds true if its diet lacks enough quality hay or grass, causing fiber deficiency.

And, Rednour says, internal parasites are seeing a resurgence.

"Owners aren't keeping up with deworming," he says, adding that even faithfully dewormed horses can become colicky because some parasites are resistant to ivermectin, a top preventative.

The daunting fact is that colic is the most common natural cause of death for horses. But owners can increase a horse's survival chances by beefing up their knowledge of colic's symptoms, as well as learning what they can do until a veterinarian arrives on the scene.

For starters, a horse's failure to eat that first meal of the day — one usually gobbled up — often is the first sign of distress.

If colic is indeed causing the decreased appetite, Rednour says, the horse will soon exhibit fidgety behavior: swishing its tail at its abdomen and hindquarters, pacing nervously back and forth, getting up and down repeatedly, and biting at its sides.

As pain increases, the horse may roll on the ground excessively — more times than needed to scratch an itch. Rolling is particularly dangerous, because it can trigger intestinal twisting.

A colicky horse might also lie down for abnormally long periods, and often will experience an increased heart rate.

"A normal heart rate is between 20 and 40 beats per minute," Rednour says. "If it's too fast, that's a sign of pain."

He suggests horse owners invest in a stethoscope, allowing them to not only monitor heart rates, but also check for gut sounds — noises indicating intestinal movement.

Once colic is suspected, owners should contact a veterinarian immediately. But before the vet makes a house call, Rednour says owners can take several actions to provide comfort, starting with administering such mild anti-inflammatory pain relievers as dipyrone or phenylbutasone.

"Ninety percent of colics that we see are resolved with painkillers," Rednour says.

Then, he says, give the horse a dose of electrolytes — powdered Gatorade mixed in water will do — and encourage additional water intake to ease dehydration. Next, walk the horse for 20-30 minutes, which can jumpstart its intestines and also prevent it from rolling. And let it nibble some fresh grass.

The owner can then determine if symptoms are subsiding. If not, advanced treatments are necessary.

"If the horse is in more pain, the symptoms will become more and more violent," Rednour says. "The vet should come out."

Laura Sewell is a writer based in Brentwood, TN.