Is your horse colicking? Here’s how to tell, what to do about it and some advice from veterinarian Amy Armentrout, DVM.
COLIC—gastrointestinal pain—is one of the most common afflictions horse owners encounter. But colic can stem from a variety of problems. It’s important to educate yourself on what can cause colic, what it looks like, and what you can do to treat it. Amy Armentrout, DVM, of Burleson Equine Hospital in Burleson, Texas, shares tips to help you navigate this tricky condition.
The list of potential causes for colic is long and can depend on the age and level of work for the horse. Armentrout says most colic signs are due to the GI system having abnormal motility. Armentrout says to picture the GI system from mouth to rectum as a giant tube of toothpaste, when thinking about motility.
“Squeezing the tube of toothpaste from the end to the opening allows the toothpaste to flow out of the tube easily,” Armentrout said. “This is how normal GI motility works—it pushes feed and fluids through the intestines. Altered GI mobility happens when the tube of toothpaste gets squeezed everywhere—at the front, at the middle, behind—all at the same time.”
Causes of altered GI motility aren’t completely clear, Armentrout says, but she says pain, excitement, stress and fear can all be factors. Changes in feed, water and housing can trigger colic, as well as recent vaccination or deworming, dehydration, heavy parasite burden, and changes to barometric pressure or weather.
“The fact that I’m giving a huge list indicates that there isn’t just one major cause, and it also means there’s no one way to prevent or treat colic,” Armentrout said. “It should also be noted that foals can colic—generally
from a meconium impaction, ruptured bladder, or ulcers—and yearlings can colic—generally related to parasites.”
Part of the problem with horses and colic is that horses can’t vomit.
“Humans are able to vomit because their esophagus has skeletal muscle— which is muscle that can be controlled—like a bicep curling an arm,” Armentrout said. “The horse does not have skeletal muscle throughout the esophagus, it has smooth muscle. This is muscle that does a job without you consciously telling the muscle to do it.”
She likens these muscles to food being moved through the intestine— you don’t think about needing to digest food, it just happens.
“Moving feed through the esophagus is a passive process in the horse, which also means they can’t move feed back up the esophagus,” Armentrout said. “This is a problem, because if their stomach fills with feed or fluid, they can’t vomit it out and it can rupture the stomach.”
Signs of Colic
Because colic refers to anything indicating a GI upset, Armentrout says signs can be as mild as simply not eating or as profound as rolling and thrashing.
“Mild signs include not eating, curling the upper lip, pawing occasionally, or laying down,” Armentrout said. “Severe signs include rolling and thrashing uncontrollably.”
What to Do
Stay safe, Armentrout recommends first and foremost. Stay out of the way if the horse is rolling—you don’t have to stop the rolling if it’s in a suitable area.
“Many people mistakenly think that rolling will ‘twist a gut,’ but this is untrue,” Armentrout said. “Horses roll because they are already painful or twisting. Staying calm and safe is the first priority.”
If your horse is safe to handle, taking it for a walk can help stimulate GI motility. A trailer ride can also help.
Armentrout recommends calling your veterinarian any time you’re concerned about the wellbeing of your horse.
“Mild colics, when treated appropriately, can resolve quickly and easily with few complications,” Armentrout said. “I often see colics where the horse hasn’t been acting normally for days, and by the time I see it there are big problems that often require more time to make the horse better and an increased expense [for the owner].”
Gather facts about your horse in preparation for talking with your veterinarian—when did the horse last eat? Did it finish the meal? When was the last time someone saw the horse act normally? Has the horse been passing manure and gas normally? When was the last time the horse was dewormed? Is there access to water? What is the feeding type and schedule, and have there been any changes?
Learn how to take your horse’s vital signs and keep a stethoscope in your emergency kit for colicky horses, Armentrout advises.
You should be able to find the horse’s heart rate, respiratory rate, listen for GI sounds, and look at mucous membranes or gums to determine hydration status. Check the gums by pushing your finger against them to make them white, and then count the seconds until they are pink again. This is called a capillary refill time. You should also take the horse’s temperature. Armentrout says normal rates include heart rate 32-48 beats per minute; respiratory rate 12-20 breaths per minute; temperature 99.0-101.5° Fahrenheit. Mucous membranes should be pink, moist, and have a capillary refill time of less than two seconds. You should hear two to three strong gurgling GI sounds every 30 seconds when listening to the gut. High heart rates (above 60 beats per minute), high temperatures (above 102 degrees Fahrenheit), white, purple, or brick mucous membranes, or a CRT longer than three seconds all warrant veterinary care.
What Not To Do
Armentrout advises against administering Banamine, a common muscle relaxer, until you have spoken with your veterinarian.
“If you plan to have a veterinarian examine your horse, many want to see a horse when it hasn’t had any medication,” Armentrout said. “This is something you should discuss with your veterinarian.”
If your horse has known problems that contribute to regular colic, you may feel more comfortable administering Banamine on your own and waiting to see how it responds. But Armentrout cautions against continuing to give the medication.
“If Banamine hasn’t worked in an hour, a veterinarian should be contacted,” Armentrout said. “It should be noted that if the first dose of Banamine didn’t work, a second dose won’t help. Banamine should only be given every 12 hours to avoid overdosing and kidney damage. If it isn’t working, then you should absolutely get a veterinarian involved sooner rather than later.”
If the horse seems dehydrated, do not put a hose in your horse’s mouth to try to force it to drink. The water can go into the lungs and cause respiratory distress. Don’t try to administer any kind of enema or put anything into the rectum, especially a hand or arm.
“Enemas are not effective in adult horses due to anatomy, and rectal tears happen in horses fairly easily,” Armentrout said. “Rectal palpation should only be performed by a veterinarian, since tearing the rectum can result in death.”
While walking your horse is a good thing, don’t over walk it. Armentrout says if the horse wants to lay down and rest quietly, you should let it do so.
“I have seen horses that were walked so much during a colic episode, they actually foundered,” Armentrout said.
“Laying quietly is fine.”
This article was originally published in the November 2019 issue of BHN.