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Pets Large & Small

Preventing winter colics

Dr. Kimberly Brokaw, DVM
Walkersville Vet Clinic

(2/2017) Most horse owners have experienced colic in at least one of their horses. Colic can range from just a mild upset stomach that is quickly relieved by pain medication to a severe illness with a twisted intestine and death. I, like many vets, would say that I treat more colics in the winter time. This is often related to inadequate water intake. Horses don't always want to drink cold water. Sometimes their water is frozen so they can't drink. Then they colic. Much of the year, horses get part of their daily water intake from green grass. The green grass is dormant in the winter so horses eat more dry hay instead of grass. This can also be a risk factor for colic. Some horses don't receive enough hay or other forage to keep their guts active. Inadequate forage is one more risk factor for colic. While many colics can be prevented through good animal husbandry, other times the colic is caused by cancer, or an intestinal twist/torsion and nothing could have been done to prevent it.

While most people know that their horse should have access to fresh water at all times, sometimes various oversights lead to a horse being without water. On one of the cold spells this winter, I was called to a farm to pull blood for routine testing. The horses were field boarded so I walked with the owner to the field so she could catch the horses for the blood test. As we were taking blood, I saw one of the other horses chewing the ice on a frozen water trough. I pointed out to the owner that the water trough was frozen. She promptly told me that was okay as they had just installed brand new automatic waterers three days ago so the horse could drink from that.

She seemed oblivious to the fact that horses don't usually chew on ice and this was a sign that either the horses didn't know how to use the waterer or perhaps the heating element in the waterer wasn't properly grounded and the horse was getting electrocuted when he tried to drink. I told her to go get a bucket of water and immediately that horse, as well as her other three horses came to the bucket and drank it dry. They had also chewed a foot deep hole in the ice in the water trough. After pointing out those things to the owner, plus the obviously very thirsty horses, made the owner realize that something wasn't working properly with the waterers. She assured me she would look into it, hopefully before all of her horses coliced.

It's situations like those that always make me inquire into animal husbandry when I get called for a colicing horse. Just last week an owner called to tell me both of his horses were colicing. He said they'd been fine the night before but now neither of them would eat and the one was acting painful and trying to roll. I'd been out to the owners farm before and while I knew he was a knowledgeable horse owner, I also knew he had health issues. I was guessing that he most likely hadn't given the horses non-frozen water last night and that was why he now had two colics at the same time.

When I arrived at the farm I found the owner. One of the horses was in a stall while he walked the more painful horse so he wouldn't lay down and roll. As the owner was walking the horse I noticed that the owner walked with a distinct limp. I was getting more convinced that my theory about him not providing water was correct. I was wrong. I asked the owner about the water and food situation for the horses and was pleasantly surprised. He had one large water trough with a heater in it and also another water trough that he kept without a heater but broke out the ice every day. He told me that the heater was properly grounded with no stray currents yet he found the horses preferred the non-heated water so he kept both troughs for them. He also told me that the horses were fed alfalfa pellets and beet pulp soaked in warm water twice daily with their grain. He also gave them as much hay as they wanted. I looked at the food and none of it looked moldy. While I don't usually believe in coincidences, it was looking like it was simply bad luck that both horses coliced rather than mismanagement by the owner.

I examined both of the horses and treated them. Before I even left they were feeling better and eating grass. Both the owner and I wished we could figure out what caused both of the horses to colic, but were happy that they seemed better now.

The basics of winter colic prevention include making sure horses always have two sources of water that is not frozen. Electric waterers and heaters must be properly grounded, as horses are very sensitive to even small amounts of stray electrical current. Horses benefit from large amounts of good quality hay. Getting extra forage and extra water into a horse by feeding soaked hay cubes, or wet alfalfa, can be helpful.

Even when you do everything right, an owner should be prepared to deal with colic. Any time a horse is not eating, or looks uncomfortable, check his temperature. Then, call the vet for instructions. Many times, your vet will have left an emergency dose of Banamine or other pain medication with you. After checking the temperature, give the medication as instructed by the veterinarian. If the horse is not completely back to normal within an hour after giving the medication, or if the pain returns, call your vet a second time. Tell the vet if you would want the horse to have surgery, if it was necessary to save the horse's life. The vet will then often have you ready your horse trailer to take your horse to a surgical clinic, while your vet is en route to assess and stabilize your horse. Hopefully, you have familiarized yourself with the route to the Equine Medical Center in Leesburg, or whatever surgical center you choose to use. Many times, surgery can be avoided by intravenous fluids and other treatments at the surgical facility. If surgery is necessary, your horse has a much greater chance of survival if he arrives at the surgical center quickly.

Colic is dreaded by most owners. Unfortunately, it is common and can be devastating. Do everything you can to prevent colic, and promptly call your vet to treat it when it is not preventable.

Read other articles by Dr. Kim Brokaw