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Hypocalcemia

By: Dr. Melissa Mazan

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Hypocalcemia refers to a low level of calcium in the blood. Calcium is extremely important for muscle and nerve function. Muscles are bathed in blood and rely on the presence of calcium for contraction. When the concentration of calcium in the blood becomes too low, muscle function declines. Muscles that are affected include the heart, skeletal muscles (the muscles we associate with movement of the skeleton that are mostly under voluntary control), and smooth muscle (the muscle that lines the gastrointestinal system, the blood vessels, and the respiratory system, and are not under voluntary control).

If the calcium level is only moderately decreased, muscle may become hyper-irritable (this may manifest as a high heart rate or muscle twitching). When the calcium level is extremely low, the muscle will become flaccid, and the horse may be unable to rise. Seizures and death may occur if severe hypocalcemia is prolonged.

Hypocalcemia is seen most commonly in endurance horses or other horses that are undergoing strenuous, lengthy exercise, mares who have been lactating one to two weeks, and in horses who have been stressed by being transported a long distance.

What to Watch For

  • Thumps (synchronous diaphragmatic flutter). You will notice that the horse seems to be hiccupping, or contracting the flank or abdomen abruptly at regular intervals. If you were to listen to the heart, you would find that each contraction coincided with the beat of the heart.

  • Tetany (hypocalcemic tetany). This refers to excessive muscle contractions. Your horse appears stiff, and the muscles feel very hard on palpation (to the touch). If you were to listen to the heart, your horse would probably have a very high heart rate, and might be experiencing erratic heartbeats (arrhythmias).

  • Colic. When the intestinal smooth muscle does not contract rhythmically, your horse's gastrointestinal system may experience abnormal motility, resulting in colic. Although hypocalcemia is rarely the primary cause of colic, hypocalcemia can exacerbate colic or other gastrointestinal problems.
  • Weakness

  • Seizures, especially in foals

    Diagnosis

    Diagnostic tests are necessary to confirm hypocalcemia and rule out other causes of arrhythmias, muscle tetany, colic, weakness, twitching, or flaccidity of the muscles. Tests may include:

  • Complete medical history and physical examination. Your veterinarian will ask about your horse's diet (both excessively high and excessively low calcium diets may trigger hypocalcemia), exercise, reproduction and transport history, as these can be precipitating factors in developing hypocalcemia.

  • Serum biochemistry (blood) tests to evaluate levels of calcium as well as other electrolytes. Blood gas to determine whether your horse is alkalotic (has abnormally low acid levels in his blood). Alkalosis may also precipitate hypocalcemia.

  • EKG to determine if subtle arrhythmias are present

    Treatment

    The most critical treatment for hypocalcemia is intravenous infusion of calcium. Because this is a potentially very dangerous thing to do, it must be done under veterinary supervision only. During administration, it is essential to monitor heart rate and rhythm very carefully.

    Home Care and Prevention

    Monitor your horse for any recurrence of signs. Some horses require multiple treatments over hours to days for full resolution of signs.

    Provide a diet balanced for calcium and phosphorous. The recommended ratio of these minerals is from 1.2 to 2 parts calcium to 1 part phosphorous.

    Hypocalcemia can be complicated by both low and high calcium diets. The body develops a wasteful attitude toward calcium when it is in high supply. Then, when the horse has an unusual demand (such as during an endurance ride), the mechanisms for capturing calcium from the body's stores can't respond quickly enough.

    One successful approach is to reduce dietary calcium for 3 to 4 days prior to a strenuous ride (take away alfalfa hay, for instance, if this is what you feed). At the same time, you can make sure that your horse is well supplemented with other electrolytes during a long ride. Water and electrolyte losses during prolonged strenuous activity can cause your horse to be alkalotic, which in turn can precipitate hypocalcemia.

    During the ride, and two hours before the ride, make sure that your horse receives small amounts (2 oz) of a supplement containing sodium, potassium, chloride, calcium, and magnesium.

    Above all, make sure that your horse is in top shape for the competition that he faces. If your horse is going to be transported a long distance, make sure that he receives plenty of water, electrolytes and rest along the way.

    Sweating should alert you to the possibility of major electrolyte losses, alkalosis, and hypocalcemia.

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