Im­paction colic

These in­testi­nal block­ages are more com­mon in the cold­est months, but you can take steps to re­duce your horse’s risk.


These in­testi­nal block­ages are more com­mon in the cold­est months, but you can take steps to re­duce your horse’s risk.

Win­ter is a fairly quiet time around many barns, es­pe­cially in north­ern cli­mates. The bus­tle of show sea­son is past, and many rid­ing and train­ing sched­ules are less de­mand­ing. At the same time, equine di­ets tend to shift to­ward more hay, and mak­ing sure drink­ing wa­ter re­mains free of ice is a daily chore.

But all of these cir­cum­stances--frigid weather, icy wa­ter, re­duced ac­tiv­ity, a lack of pas­ture graz­ing ---come to­gether to cre­ate a per­fect storm that puts horses at a higher risk for one se­ri­ous health prob­lem: im­paction colic.

Im­paction colic oc­curs when a mass of some sort gets lodged in the in­testi­nal tract and blocks the flow of in­gesta. The mass can in­clude for­eign ma­te­ri­als the horse has in­gested, or it can be a con­cen­tra­tion of dry, in­ad­e­quately chewed or overly fi­brous foods. Slow­ing of the move­ment of food through the gut can also con­trib­ute to block­ages. Im­paction col­ics most com­monly oc­cur at the pelvic flex­ure, where the large in­tes­tine nar­rows and makes a 180de­gree turn within the ab­domen, but block­ages can also oc­cur in the ce­cum,

the small in­tes­tine and other parts of the gas­troin­testi­nal tract.

Like any other ab­dom­i­nal pain, im­paction colic can pro­duce a va­ri­ety of signs, in­clud­ing sweat­ing, paw­ing, rolling, loss of ap­petite and el­e­vated heart rate. Lack of ma­nure is a com­mon in­di­ca­tion of colic, but some horses with im­pactions pass small amounts of un­usu­ally dry waste.

Any signs of di­ges­tive up­set war­rant a call to the vet­eri­nar­ian. No mat­ter the cause, the chances of a good out­come are much bet­ter when colic is ad­dressed as early as pos­si­ble. If an ex­am­i­na­tion sug­gests that a horse has a sim­ple im­paction, the vet­eri­nar­ian will start treat­ment right away. This will likely in­clude ad­min­is­ter­ing fluid via a na­so­gas­tric tube to loosen the block­age and al­low your horse to pass ma­nure nor­mally. Banamine, a non­s­teroidal an­ti­in­flam­ma­tory drug of­ten used to treat colic pain, may also be ad­min­is­tered. On the other hand, if an im­paction seems to be se­vere or per­sists de­spite treat­ment, then in­tra­venous flu­ids, a tem­po­rary move to a warmer en­vi­ron­ment or surgery may be re­quired.

Most horses with im­paction colic re­cover with treat­ment on the farm. Nonethe­less, of course, it’s bet­ter to pre­vent the prob­lem en­tirely. And, al­though im­pactions can oc­cur at any time of year, you’ll want to be es­pe­cially vig­i­lant dur­ing the win­ter.


• En­cour­age your horse to drink lots of wa­ter. A horse needs to drink eight to 12 gal­lons of wa­ter a day to re­main healthy. Good hy­dra­tion is im­por­tant year-round, but it is es­pe­cially a con­cern when tem­per­a­tures are cold enough

for a horse’s wa­ter to ice over. When it’s freez­ing out, you’ll want to visit your horse’s buck­ets or troughs at least twice a day to break and com­pletely re­move ice. Sev­eral types of heater are avail­able to help keep the wa­ter at an op­ti­mal tem­per­a­ture---but you’ll still need to check buck­ets and troughs fre­quently to make sure the heaters are work­ing prop­erly. As you make your rounds, stick your un­gloved fin­gers into each wa­ter bucket and trough to check the tem­per­a­ture. If you feel a tin­gling sen­sa­tion, look for a short. The elec­tric­ity run­ning through the wa­ter may de­ter your horse from drink­ing.

Stud­ies have shown that horses pre­fer to drink warmer wa­ter in cold weather. Con­sider keep­ing an elec­tric teaket­tle at the barn so you can add hot wa­ter to your horse’s cold bucket, bring­ing it up to a more palat­able tem­per­a­ture. An­other way to en­cour­age more drink­ing is to of­fer a bucket with dis­solved elec­trolytes along­side a bucket of plain wa­ter. Hot mashes are also a time-hon­ored way of get­ting more wa­ter into a horse dur­ing the win­ter months. You’ll find a num­ber of recipes, but the sim­plest and safest ap­proach is to make a warm slurry with your horse’s reg­u­lar feed ra­tion and serve it right away.

If you’re wor­ried that your horse may be get­ting de­hy­drated, try a skin-pinch test: Grab a fold of skin on the point of his shoul­der, pull it away from your horse and re­lease it. If it takes longer than one or two sec­onds for the skin to re­turn to nor­mal, he may be get­ting de­hy­drated. A de­lay of six to 10 sec­onds war­rants a call to the vet­eri­nar­ian.

• Feed plenty of qual­ity for­age. A steady diet of hay is good for a horse’s health for many rea­sons. Not only does it help keep his di­ges­tion run­ning smoothly, burn­ing for­age for fuel in his gut helps to keep him warm in cold weather.

Make sure you’re feed­ing goodqual­ity hay. If yours is too coarse and stemmy, your horse may have dif­fi­culty chew­ing and digest­ing it. Steam­ing hay may make it more di­gestible but if all of your re­main­ing bales are of poorer qual­ity, con­sider or­der­ing a new ship­ment, switch­ing to a com­plete feed or sup­ple­ment­ing with hay cubes for the re­main­der of the win­ter.

If your horse tears through his hay ra­tion then spends hours stand­ing around bored, he might ben­e­fit from a slow feeder. These de­vices limit the amount of hay a horse can pull out in one bite. Not only will he be forced to spend more time eat­ing, he will likely spend more time chew­ing the smaller bites he takes, and he won’t be able to swal­low large mouth­fuls of dry hay at once.

• Sched­ule reg­u­lar den­tal ex­ams. A horse whose teeth are not ad­e­quately grind­ing his feed will be swal­low­ing larger par­ti­cles than he can ad­e­quately di­gest. You may no­tice him “quid­ding” ---drop­ping par­tially chewed food from his mouth as he eats---and you’ll see larger pieces of hay in his ma­nure.

Dur­ing a den­tal exam your vet­eri­nar­ian may “float” your horse’s teeth ---rasp­ing them to re­move any sharp edges, points or other ab­nor­mal­i­ties that may in­ter­fere with nor­mal chew­ing. He’ll also look for other signs of trou­ble. Sched­ul­ing ex­ams once a year is ad­e­quate for the av­er­age adult horse who has al­ways had a healthy mouth, but six-month in­ter­vals might be more ap­pro­pri­ate for ag­ing horses or those who’ve had trou­bles in the past.

• Pro­vide ex­er­cise. A 2011 study from Eng­land showed that horses who spend most of their time in stalls have

If your horse tears through his hay ra­tion then spends hours stand­ing around bored, he might ben­e­fit from a slow feeder.

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