Pain in the abdominal cavity (belly) is commonly termed in the horse world as “colic.” This pain can be caused from any organ within the abdominal cavity, but is often attributed to problems involving the intestinal tract. Horses experiencing colic will often paw at their abdomen, roll excessively on the ground, or decline food or water. Episodes of pain may be rapid and progress to dangerous and fatal levels. It is important as a horse owner to have a general idea of what your horse’s normal activity and behavior is so that abnormalities may be detected and treated readily.
Colic can be classified as “strangulating” or “nonstrangulating.” This means that a portion of the intestinal tract or other abdominal organs has been essentially tangled, and the blood supply has been compromised. Gas can also build up in the intestinal tract and cause a spasm of the mucosa in the gut.
While the weather be comes increasingly colder and the days get shorter, other changes may be occurring among your horses that are seemingly less obvious. Although more feed is likely being consumed in an effort to keep warm, the water bucket may be too cold or frozen for even the thirstiest animal. A common correlation is often made between the increase of impactiontype colic, colder weather and decreased water consumption. When horses have less thirst, especially due to a decrease in sweating and thus loss of sodium, areas within the intestine can get dry and make transit of ingesta more difficult within the normal functioning system.
One of the most important things a concerned horse owner can do at this time of year is to monitor the water consumption of animals on the farm and in the backyard. An averagesized riding horse may weigh 1,000 pounds and drink around 8 to 10 gallons of water per day.
When more than one horse is pastured together, it is often easiest to add the total amount of water being consumed and divide the average per animal.
Besides managing ice development daily in regular water buckets, soaking hay and grain in water prior to feeding can enhance the water content being fed to animals. Some horses have been shown to benefit from a daily bran mash along with their regular ration.
Horses that are not consuming an adequate amount of water may benefit from a salt block placed in the barn or shed. This will allow the horse to stimulate its’ own thirst center by increasing the tonicity or salt content within the blood. You may also want to correlate an electrolyte program for the drinking water; you can do this with your veterinarian at any time of the year.
Finally, a biannual consultation with your veterinarian regarding preventative dental care is a must for any age and breed of horse. A significant amount of animals suffer from oral pain every day and yet go on to eat and drink normally. As part of preventative measures in your facility, plan on incorporating an oral examination and dental float procedure as part of your regular wellness schedule every year.
The best chance for survival during any episode of colic centers on early treatment from your veterinarian. If you notice your horse seems to be in pain, call your veterinarian for assistance and an examination. While waiting for his or her arrival, try to keep your horse comfortable with gentle hand-walking and DO NOT administer any pain medications, as this will distract a proper diagnosis and potentially mask major problems from your veterinarian.
(Dr. Genevieve Grammer is a mixed-species veterinarian practicing in eastern Colorado. Please direct correspondence to drgigi19@ gmail.com).