Vail Pet Talk column: How to recognize and treat equine colic

The first vital signs to check in your horse if you suspect colic are the gum color, heart rate, gut sounds and temperature.
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During the past several weeks of this very hot summer, the incidence of equine emergencies in our practice has significantly increased. Most commonly, we are seeing an increase in the number of equine colic cases.

What is equine colic? Colic is abdominal upset in a horse. Because a horse cannot physically vomit, gas and acid, as well as foodstuffs, can build up and cause displacements, torsions and ruptures. There are many different types of colic, with the most common types being gas or spasmodic colic, impaction colic or a combination of both. How do you know your horse is suffering from colic and what causes it?

If you notice your horse’s appetite is decreased or, simply put, your horse is off feed, then that is the first indication there is an issue. If your horse is standing away from the food and showing no interest in eating, then you need to call your veterinarian. Other signs are rolling, thrashing, looking at one side or the other, pawing, thrashing the tail or even just standing off away from other horses.

The first vital signs to check in your horse if you suspect colic are the gum color, heart rate, gut sounds and temperature.

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Look and Listen

The gums of a horse should be a pink color. If they are pale, this means poor perfusion or blood flow. If they are injected red, the horse could be toxic or even have a perforation of the bowel. Press on the gums and feel if they are moist, meaning the horse is hydrated. If they are dry or tacky, again, then that can mean the horse has an issue. If the gums turn white where you press, count how many seconds before the color returns. Ideally, it should take 3 seconds for the color in the gums to return.

The heart rate of a horse should be below 40 beats per minute ideally. You can measure the heart rate by feeling up under the armpit or by feeling the pulse between the mandibles on the inside of the lower mandible. Any heart rate above 80 signifies surgical colic, and 40 to 60 beats at rest can signify you have a potential problem.

The gut sounds of a horse are indicative of the motility of the bowel. When a horse suffers from colic, oftentimes they develop an “ileus” where the bowel actually stops or slows down significantly. By putting your head up to the side of the flank of the horse on both sides, you should be able to hear loud gas sounds every few seconds. If you hear nothing, then you have an emergency.

Finally, a horse temperature below 100 degrees but above 98 degrees is ideal. Low temperatures indicate toxicity in the horse, whereas very high temperatures can indicate inflammation or infection.

Causes of colic are vast. Most commonly, sudden changes in feed, not enough water access, lack of drinking in general, eating off the ground where they can ingest a lot of sand and parasites are all factors.

How do you prevent it? Don’t change feed suddenly, i.e. going from grass hay to a lush green pasture or straight alfalfa hay. Transition your horse slowly. Always have water available. If you are traveling, then take some of the water from home so the horse recognizes the taste of that water. Do routine fecal checks on your horse for parasites, place feed in feeders and always have a salt and/or mineral block available.

How do you treat colic? Most commonly you start with a veterinary exam to assess what type of colic your horse is suffering from and if this is a surgical colic or if it can be treated medically. Most horses are given pain relievers, intravenous fluids and electrolytes, with continued pain management until clinical signs resolve.

If the horse has a torsion, which means the bowel is twisted, or it is out of place (called displaced) then surgery is the only option other than humane euthanasia. Just remember what to watch for, and don’t wait. Call your veterinarian when you see any of these signs.

Sheila Fitzpatrick, DVM, owner of Mountain Mobile Vet and The Animal Hospital Center, submitted this column. You can reach her at 970-328-7085.

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