What Not to Do For Colic

What^To Do For Colic
by Catherine Hall DVM

Winter has arrived, temperatures are changing, horses are being fed more hay and have the potential to not drink as well.  What's the first thing that comes to mind when we begin to talk about all of these changes?:  Colicking horses!

First, let's define the term colic.  The word colic is defined as "an attack of acute abdominal pain localized in a hollow organ and often caused by spasm, obstruction, or twisting" by the Merriam-Webster dictionary.  Therefore, when we speak of a horse colicking, we are basically just saying that it is having abdominal pain. We then have to do diagnostics such as a physical exam and rectal exam to try and determine the cause.

Colic can be further broken down into 3 categories:
    1. Obstruction: further broken down into
        -non-compromised: such as a colon impaction
        -compromised: such as twisting of the bowl which also cuts off blood supply
    2.  Spasmodic: an example is gas
    3.  Inflammatory: enteritis, which is a fancy word for diarrhea, is an example

So, how do you know if your horse is colicking?

 Here are a few signs your horse may exhibit if they are colicking:  
Repeated turning of the head toward the flank
Repeatedly lying down and getting up or attempting to get up
Kicking or biting at the abdomen
Stretching out as if to urinate
Rolling, especially violent rolling
Sitting in a dog-like position or lying on the back
Lack of appetite
Putting head down to water without drinking
Lack of bowel movements, as evidenced by fewer manure piles
Rapid respiration and/or flared nostrils

With the technical information out of the way, now let's look into what should be done if you feel your horse is colicking.  Or, better, let's discuss things NOT to do as we feel if there is a problem with your horse you should always call us first prior to treating yourself.

First, let me state:  If your horse is so painful that you cannot keep him from going down and rolling, we need to be called immediately!

DO NOT self medicate your horse with Banamine or Bute:
Why? Because once a horse has had medication it makes it much harder for us to assess the patient.  Sometimes they can be much worse than we realize because they have already had medication. Banamine has strong pain-relieving qualities that lasts for up to 8 hours. If you cover up the pain you may have waited too late and your horse cannot be saved.

DO NOT administer mineral oil orally with a syringe:
Why? Mineral oil has no taste. If done incorrectly the horse may aspirate the oil into the lungs which could lead to death.

DO NOT walk your horse for hours:
Why? Some horses who are mildly uncomfortable, or just off feed will improve with short walks.  However, if you are having to walk your horse for more than 30 minutes, or your horse will not stay standing without walking then we need to be called. The longer you walk your horse the more dehydrated he will become. This makes the colic worse!

DO NOT place a water hose, or any other device, in your horses rectum:
Why?  Some people think this is a way to provide an enema for the horse, however this is very dangerous. The horses intestinal tract is so long that in most cases the problem is beyond the reach of an enema. Horses also have very thin rectal tissue and you risk tearing the rectal mucosa and causing the death of the horse.

DO NOT let your friend or neighbor try to pass a stomach tube:
Why? Passing a nasogastric tube should only be performed by a trained professional.  There are many structures which can be damaged. If the tube is passed into the lungs and mineral oil is given you are likely to cause the death of the horse.

DO NOT withhold water unless directed by your veterinarian:
Why? Sometimes we don't want the horse to eat certain items, but we always want them to have the ability to drink water.  Some old scenarios which people think help include keeping the horse in a small stall or standing in a trailer without food or water.  Water is very important for keeping the gut and the horse hydrated, therefore withholding water can cause even more problems with your horse.

So, the take home message:
If you think your horse is colicking, call the vet!
We are always happy to talk to you about treatment for your horse. Your horse may be able to wait a short period of time and walking may help. But we cover a large area and may be located an hour away treating another horse. We'd rather know what's going on ahead of time so that we can advise you on the best care for your horse.

Here is a great article for horse owners from the magazine "The Horse". It will answer many of your questions about what to do when you think your horse may have colic.
 32 Do's and Dont's When Dealing With Colic

Remember; A colicking horse is always an emergency!

Thank you for reading.  Let's work together to keep our horses healthy.