Whole Horse Q&A: Is it colic, or col­i­tis?

Col­i­tis, an in­flam­ma­tion of the colon, can cause life-threat­en­ing de­hy­dra­tion if not treated promptly.

Horse & Rider - - Contents -

QA friend’s team-rop­ing geld­ing ap­peared mildly col­icky, but it turned out to be col­i­tis. How does a vet know if it is col­i­tis?


AHorses have a unique di­ges­tive tract that re­lies on bac­te­ria to break down the large amount of roughage they con­sume. Un­like cloven-hoofed an­i­mals, horses fer­ment feed at the hind end of their gut, the colon. When the colon be­comes in­flamed, the term is col­i­tis. Col­i­tis can oc­cur when the nor­mal bac­te­rial pop­u­la­tion is dis­rupted and path­o­genic bac­te­ria pro­lif­er­ate, or when the colon’s blood sup­ply is im­paired and un­able to sup­port the colon’s ab­sorp­tive and pro­tec­tive func­tions.

Col­i­tis symp­toms can vary from mild de­pres­sion and lack of ap­petite to se­vere di­ar­rhea and col­icky be­hav­ior. A change in fe­cal con­sis­tency com­bined with a poor ap­petite is a com­mon fi rst sign and war­rants a call to your vet­eri­nar­ian. Due to the colon’s length (30 feet) and the amount of wa­ter a horse needs to stay hy­drated (about 12 gal­lons a day), de­hy­dra­tion oc­curs ex­tremely quickly when the colon isn’t ab­sorb­ing wa­ter. Hu­mans and small com­pan­ion an­i­mals of­ten can weather a few days of di­ar­rhea, but horses re­quire early in­ter­ven- tion, di­ag­no­sis, and hy­dra­tion sup­port.

Your vet­eri­nar­ian can de­ter­mine whether your horse has col­i­tis, start­ing with a phys­i­cal ex­am­i­na­tion. Many horses with col­i­tis will have a fever, some mild de­pres­sion, and loose ma­nure or di­ar­rhea. Blood work will of­ten in­di­cate a low white blood cell count as well as a drop in blood pro­tein. A fe­cal PCR panel is also use­ful (see box).

Re­cent an­tibi­otic use can pre­dis­pose a horse to col­i­tis. The an­tibi­otic can kill the healthy bac­te­ria, al­low­ing path­o­genic bac­te­ria to grow. Usu­ally, the ben­e­fits of an­tibi­otic use out­weigh the risks, and your vet­eri­nar­ian will use judge­ment when pre­scrib­ing one. A key

prac­tice is to dis­con­tinue an an­tibi­otic and call your vet if your horse goes off feed or his ma­nure changes.

Rarely, horses can have in their colon an in­flam­ma­tory re­ac­tion to other med­i­ca­tions, in­clud­ing NSAIDs (non­s­teroidal anti-in­flam­ma­tory drugs such as bute and Banamine) or gas­tric pro­tec­tants (such as omepra­zole). Like hu­mans, horses can have in­di­vid­ual in­tol­er­ances to cer­tain med­i­ca­tions. Grain over­load, toxic-plant in­ges­tion, and sand ac­cu­mu­la­tion are other po­ten­tial causes of col­i­tis. In 50 per­cent of cases, no un­der­ly­ing cause can be found.

Treat­ment out­come de­pends on the sever­ity and cause of the col­i­tis. Mild cases re­spond well to with­drawal of med­i­ca­tion and at­ten­tion to hy­dra­tion plus restor­ing nor­mal bac­te­rial flora. More in­volved cases re­quire con­tin­u­ous IV-fluid ther­apy, treat­ments to el­e­vate plasma pro­tein and, oc­ca­sion­ally, an­tibi­otics to pre­vent fur­ther in­fec­tion of a dam­aged colon. It can take days to weeks for an in­flamed colon lin­ing to re­gen­er­ate and re­gain nor­mal func­tion. Nurs­ing care is es­sen­tial dur­ing this heal­ing pe­riod.

Even with in­ten­sive care, some horses will progress to cir­cu­la­tory shock from wa­ter loss, which can man­i­fest as lamini­tis, ve­nous blood clots, or even death. Take away: Iden­tify the prob­lem early and in­ter­vene with vet­eri­nary care be­fore sig­nif­i­cant colon dam­age oc­curs.

CLAUDIA SON­DER, DVM Di­rec­tor, Cen­ter for Equine Health Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Davis

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