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Colic: How You Deal with It

By: Dr. Andrew Hoffman

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A little preparation can help you make clearer decisions about what course of action you might take if your horse comes down with colic. Having a plan also could aid your veterinarian in treating your equine and improve the chances for the animal's quick recovery.

How to Prepare for Colic

  • Know the normal temperature and pulse and respiratory rate for horses. Temperature is 99.5 to 101.4 degrees Fahrenheit. Pulse rate, 24 to 42 beats per minute. Respiratory rate, 8 to 15 breaths per minute.

  • Measure your own horse a few times to get a baseline and jot down this information for easy reference. If you're not sure how to record vital signs, ask your vet or someone experienced to show you. Do this when your horse is quiet, not right after exercise or turnout, which tends to run up the readings.

  • Prepare for transporting the horse, night or day. It is crucial that you have a form of transportation ready if it becomes necessary to move your horse. Many horses arrive too late to a referral hospital because of delays in trailering. You and/or your barn should have a plan and the appropriate phone numbers for a vet, a hospital and people to transport your horse if necessary. This is especially important if you live some distance from the nearest surgical/emergency care hospital or university. Know where this facility is located and how to get there. Carrying a cell phone also is helpful.

  • Know the details of your insurance plan, including the type of policy and contact information. Do you have coverage for surgery, medical treatment and mortality? If the horse is insured, call the insurance company when things settle down to let them know about the colic, especially if he was hospitalized. Ask your vet about getting the best coverage.

  • Know the history of the horse, including the age, vaccination, Coggins, de-worming and dental care history. Have it written down somewhere.

  • Prepare to make a decision about under what circumstances you would proceed with colic surgery. Making this choice under pressure can ratchet up the stress.

    Colic Surgery

    If your horse is not responding to standard "on the farm" treatment, surgery may be necessary. Further tests also may be required at a veterinary hospital or laboratory to determine if surgery is needed. Usually, your vet can make this determination by examining the horse in the barn, but in some cases, it's worth getting your horse to an established round-the-clock facility for observation and intensive care, including fluid therapy. Surgery usually is necessary when the following occurs:

  • Increasing pain and lack of response to mild painkillers
  • Increasing abdominal distension
  • Reflux out the tube
  • Abnormal belly tap (fluid removed from belly is bloody or cloudy)
  • Horse has colicked repetitively
  • Abnormal rectal examination findings that suggest a twist or bad impaction

    The cost of colic surgery ranges from $6,000 to $10,000 depending on the institution and the post-surgery price tag. Complications could boost the cost. Recovery varies, but 12 weeks is a minimum before exercise can be restarted for most surgical colics. There usually is an intense period of aftercare in the hospital for a week or so, followed by 12-plus weeks of cautious hand-walking and small-paddock turnout.

    Horses that have had colic are predisposed to get it again, although the risk depends on the nature of the colic and the surgical procedure that was needed to repair the problem. Surgical invasion of the bowel wall, resection (removal of a segment), or bypasses usually result in a higher rate of complications and repeated colics. To help you decide whether to go ahead with the operation, ask the surgeon to explain the procedure and potential complications.

    Not everyone can afford colic surgery, and it is possible that further medical treatment could stave off an operation. But if a vet says that surgery is immediately needed, it usually means that the horse will die without it. Surgical clinics differ in their payment requirements, but typically a significant deposit is required. Payment plans are offered by some clinics in extenuating circumstances.

    How to Reduce Chances for Recurrence of Colic

    The truth is, you usually cannot determine the exact cause of colic. Veterinarians have claimed that colic is mostly a result of human error. That may or may not be true, but non-vigilant horse care could be a factor in triggering colic. It also is difficult to completely control horses' eating habits because they are continuous grazers.

    One study showed that excess feeding of pelleted grain promoted gas colics and displacements. Another study showed that automatic (versus bucket) watering reduced the frequency of gastric impactions. However, most studies are inconclusive. Obviously, any sudden change of feeding is likely to disturb the digestive system and increases the risk of colic.

    In an effort to reduce the risk of future bouts of colic, ask the following questions:

  • Was there any change in the horse's diet in the last couple of weeks?

  • Was the horse drinking enough water? Does his water taste good?

  • Was the horse consuming enough salt? The daily amount should be at least 1 percent dry matter intake and 2 percent is better for heavy sweating horses

  • Was your horse moved to another pasture? You can feed hay prior to daily turnout in a new pasture to reduce the impact of the possibly different grasses and plants the horse will consume.

  • Were there any recent episodes of stress, pain, fever, shift in grouping, a lot of sweating, or signs of dehydration?

  • Does the horse get regular exercise? If exercise is sporadic, you might be predisposing the horse to erratic demands for water and electrolytes. It also could be stressful.

  • Was the horse taking phenybutazone or similar drugs on consistent basis? If so, can they be stopped, decreased or taken at a lower dosage? Are you aware of the toxicities of these drugs?

  • Was the horse eating a lot of grain, especially pelleted rations? If so, consider diversifying the source of grain and reduce reliance on pelleted grains.

  • Was the colic associated with feeding? If so, bring that to your vet's attention. There are a number of causes, including gastric ulcers, of this type of colic.

  • Was the horse getting pure or part alfalfa hay, and if so, is he accustomed to this hay?

  • Was the horse taking supplements? Remember, most supplements have not been rigorously tested for safety or efficacy, alone or in combination with other supplements. "Cocktails" of supplements might contribute to intestinal problems. Slow introduction to supplements can avert problems, but it is no guarantee that you'll avoid digestive upsets.

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