Alyssa K. Doering, DVM, McKinlay & Peters Equine Hospital
Hello! My name is Alyssa Doering, DVM and I am a surgeon at McKinlay & Peters Equine Hospital in Newman Lake, WA. My topic for this issue of Horse Previews is on colic. Colic in its most fundamental sense means abdominal pain.
This is a very broad term that may include any organ within the belly of the horse including but not limited to the stomach, small intestine, large colon, cecum, ovaries, liver, etc. As you can see, that is quite the list…. so lets break it down a little. Most causes of colic arise from the intestinal tract. I would say by far and away, the most common cause of colic is the large colon. Pain arises when the large colon becomes filled with gas (gas/spasmodic colic) or ingesta (impaction.) Now usually, these two types of colic are fixed with a dose of banamine on the farm and some hand walking. However; the prognosis is always the best with the shortest duration of colic, so don’t wait to call your veterinarian – if for nothing else but to get a game plan moving forward.
The second most common cause of colic comes from the small intestine. I know we’ve all heard of lipomas or had a friend of a friend with a horse that has been diagnosed with one. A lipoma is just a fatty tumor. (Similar to what humans acquire… cool huh?) The problem becomes when the tumor, which is on a long stalk, wraps around a piece of small intestine. This functionally cuts off the blood supply and the bowel dies within a matter of minutes to hours. This is absolutely a surgical emergency; but with that being said, the prognosis can be quite good if caught early. Again, don’t wait to call your veterinarian to get them involved.
The last nebulous type of colic I wanted to mention is gastric ulcers. As horsemen, this can be the bane of our existence. It can be so difficult to determine if the horse is off feed because of one of the aforementioned reasons, or ulcers in its stomach. The absolute best way to tell is gastroscopy (whaaaaat… that’s a LONG word!) Gastroscopy simply means scoping your horse’s stomach to see if there are ulcers in there contributing to the symptoms of discomfort. If diagnosed, feed recommendations will be made in addition to a gastroprotectant like omeprazole (Gastrogard). Don’t stress though, your vet can help you sort all this out.
So what do we do from here to treat colic? Well, usually this means that your horse needs banamine, which is an anti-inflammatory like Advil or Aleve as long as it’s not due to gastric ulcers. The next thing I will ask you will be, “How long has it been going on?” If it’s been any duration at all, your horse is likely dehydrated and needs oral or intravenous fluids. Depending on the severity, this can be administered on the farm or may necessitate hospitalization. Every single time, I will decompress your horse’s stomach by passing a tube. You see horses don’t have the ability to vomit or burp so it is necessary to relieve any extra build up of fluid or gas. I will also perform a rectal examination to determine the severity of disease. Then finally, if the horse fails to respond to medical management, we may have a conversation about surgery to correct what’s going wrong.
Now to address surgery – by far, the most common question I get is, “Will my horse colic again after surgery or because of surgery?” I know growing up in rural Montana; I for sure had this impression. The answer I have now is, no not necessarily. Horses colic after colic surgery when they form adhesions. This just means they form scar tissue from a piece of bowel to another piece of bowel, which kinks off the flow of ingesta. Performing surgery early before the bowel gets super inflamed and angry prevents this. So again, please contact your veterinarian as soon as you see signs of colic for the optimal outcome.
Finally, let’s chat about how to prevent colic. First, no sudden changes in feed. It should take 2+ weeks to transition between new batches of hay or different types of grain. Secondly, always provide a fresh source of water. I know this sounds fundamental, but you would be shocked how easy it is for a horse to colic when it gets whipped back from water because of another horse, traveling, working in the heat, etc. Lastly, and this cannot be stressed enough, always have a fresh tube of banamine paste in your house for just such an occasion. You don’t need it ‘til you need it, but when you do, you will be so happy you have it.
With that being said, happy trails to you. May you never need a veterinarian or an equine surgeon, but certainly if you ever do, please get in touch with your vet as soon as possible. It can literally be the difference between life and death.
Alyssa K. Doering, DVM