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Pets Large & Small

How to help your horse survive colic

Dr. Kimberly Brokaw, DVM

(1/2015) Colic is a major killer of horses. One moment, the horse looks fine. A day later, the horse is dead. There are a lot of ways that owners can help their horses survive colic.

The first step is to recognize colic. Check horses regularly so that you will know there is a problem early. When a horse is not eating, is lying down more than usual, or is looking unhappy, get a better look at him. If a horse looks ill, check his temperature before you give any medication. Fever can cause a horse to look like he has colic when he is actually sick with something else. Call the vet as soon as you suspect colic.

Make the decision ahead of time as to whether or not you would authorize surgery in your horse if it is a severe colic. Know how you would get the horse to a surgical center, if your vet says the horse may need surgery. Have quick access to a horse trailer, and be sure your horse will load into it. Keep enough gas in your truck so it is always ready for a trip to Leesburg. Make sure you have practiced the trip to Leesburg, so you don't get lost in the middle of the night while trying to rush a horse to the horse hospital.

The story below is about a recent colic, that illustrates how a skilled and well-prepared owner can help her horse survive colic. In an emergency, things don't run smoothly. However, this owner's good preparations were really important for her horse's survival.

Mrs. Phyllo is one of those people who took a little getting used to. She is an extremely intelligent and experienced horse owner who knows what she wants, yet has a tendency to lack organization and get overwhelmed. When she calls for an appointment she often gives a list of things that she wants as well as when she wants it done. However, most times after arriving at the farm, I have to call her as she has gotten distracted by a broken tractor or a downed fence board, is in the midst of trying to get that fixed and forgets about our appointment.

At 9:30pm I received a page from the answering service. Mrs. Phyllo's horse was colicing and she wanted me to call her to advise her what to do. Croissant is an elegant, well-bred, 10 year old Danish Warmblood who hates veterinarians almost as much as he hates needles. Because of his dislike of vets and needles I was initially pleased when Mrs. Phyllo said she would like to treat Croissant herself and hopefully not have me come out to the farm. She told me that she had last seen him several hours ago and he seemed normal then. However later when she went to feed him dinner he was laying down in the field. While he got up and readily came into his stall, he showed no interest in dinner and instead lay back down. Mrs. Phyllo knew she had a sick horse. She took his temperature, which was normal, and called and asked what she should do next.

Several months ago Mrs. Phyllo had been treating another horse and accidentally gave Banamine in the artery rather than the vein. The horse immediately collapsed and had a seizure. While that horse fully recovered, Mrs. Phyllo no longer felt comfortable trying to give Banamine in the vein, particularly in Croissant, who is not good with injections. As Banamine should not be given in the muscle due to the risk of clostridial myositis (a severe sometimes fatal bacterial infection), I advised that she give the Banamine orally to Croissant and call me back in half and hour to let me know if it had helped.

Forty-five minutes later Mrs. Phyllo called to say the Banamine had made no difference. I told her I thought that it would be best if I came out and examined him. While Mrs. Phyllo had hoped to avoid a nighttime emergency visit from the vet, she agreed it was best. She asked if I could bring IV fluids as she wanted me to place a catheter for her to manage at the farm. I was hesitant to leave a catheter in place, as a horse who is sick enough to need IV fluids, should probably be monitored in a hospital environment.

As it turned out, we wouldn't be discussing fluid therapy. Shortly after my arrival at the farm, I examined Croissant and determined that he had a left dorsal displacement of his large intestine. After telling the owner that he needed to go to the horse hospital in Leesburg, she left me with the horse and went to get her truck to hook it to the trailer. I was pleased that she had the truck and trailer immediately available. However, getting the trailer ready to go took longer than anticipated in that she had to unload a bunch of items out of her truck so she could hook up the trailer. She also hadn't hooked the trailer up in awhile so she struggled with that. While she was hitching the truck to the trailer, I passed a nasogastric tube on Croissant to check for reflux as well as give sore oral fluids.

It was taking Mrs. Phyllo so long to hook up the trailer that Croissant started waking up from his sedation and getting uncomfortable again. My concern was that the longer it took to get Croissant to surgery, the lower his chances of survival would be. I walked him up and down the aisle hoping that the trailer would soon be ready. While I was used to owners agonizing over the decision of whether to take their horse to surgery, I was not used to someone immediately agreeing to surgery and then having it take them an hour to hook up their truck and trailer. However, I also know how hard it can be to hook up a trailer in the dark of night when everyone is tired and easily frustrated. I re-sedated Croissant as she was pulling the trailer in front of the barn.

Croissant loaded easily onto the trailer and I helped secure him inside. I was wishing Mrs. Phyllo and a safe and quick journey when she announced she couldn't find her wallet and needed to find it; one to pay the Equine Medical Center, and two to put gas in her truck on her way down to Leesburg. About 10 minutes later she was on her way while I phoned the hospital to let them know I was sending them a patient. When Croissant arrived at the hospital, the veterinarians agreed that he had a left displacement and he was taken to surgery. The Surgery was a success.

Looking back, Mrs. Phyllo did several things correctly. She took her horse's temperature before giving Banamine and she also called the vet immediately when she noticed Croissant was sick. Mrs. Phyllo also already knew that her horse was a surgery candidate and had a credit card to pay for the surgery. Croissant is an experienced traveler, who loads easily in a trailer. A horse who won't load in a trailer, won't get to the horse hospital.

While Mrs. Phyllo had transportation, I wish she could have been faster in getting the truck and trailer hooked up. It is a good idea to keep one's trailer ready to go at all times, or at least to hook it up immediately when a horse seems ill. Time can be essential to ensuring a successful outcome, especially if you already know that you want your horse to have surgery. Even if you don't have a truck or trailer, or yours is in the shop, having an arrangement with a neighbor that you can borrow theirs in the event of an emergency can mean the difference between life and death for your horse.

Caring for a horse with colic involves a lot of steps. Mrs. Phyllo's good care of Croissant played a big role in his survival from colic.

Read other articles by Dr. Kim Brokaw