Colic: What to Do for Your Horse Until the Vet Arrives

Every horse owner dreads the moment when they realize their horse is sick. Colic is a common ailment that seems to strike in the blink of an eye. Statistics tell us that most will face a bout of colic in our horse's lifetime.  Colic is a broad term, covering several gastric problems, and therefore can include anything from relatively mild stomach upset to a life threatening emergency.  For this reason, it is important to call your vet when you suspect colic.  Symptoms of colic include, but are not limited to, refusal of food, sweating, rolling, agitation, reduced (or lack of) gut sounds and kicking or biting at flanks or belly. It's a good idea for every horse owner to have a cheap stethoscope to assess gut sounds as well as basic competency evaluating heart rate, respiration, capillary refill time, and dehydration levels. Your veterinarian will be happy to teach you simple techniques for each. Be sure to keep your skills honed and and set normal parameters by checking vital signs when your horse is well. Conventional wisdom about how to help your equine until the vet arrives has changed a lot in the past 10 years.  Horse owners used to feel compelled to walk their horses until treatment.  While some horses will want to move, others will not.  Forcing a sick horse to walk around for a hour or more may tire the animal, making him more miserable and less able to recover.  Some vets even recommend letting the horse lie down if he feels like it, so long as he does not roll.  I prefer to keep my horse standing, but to not constantly walk him unless he feels like it.  If you can't stay with your horse, have someone watch him to make sure that he does not roll or become cast in his stall. While some owners may give pain medications such as Banamine to make the horse comfortable, this practice can mask symptoms of colic, making the doctor's diagnosis harder. Ask your vet before administering any drugs to a colicky horse. If your horse needs surgery, pain medication may be counter- indicated. If your horse is hot and/or sweaty and the weather is agreeable, sponging or hosing with cool water can make him more comfortable.  For a hot horse, concentrate the bath on the insides of the back thighs, throat latch, neck, chest, and belly.  To reduce agitation, keep your horse near his stable mates in a quiet area while you wait. Continue to assess the colic symptoms every 15 minutes or so to be able to give your vet a full briefing. Horses with serious colic or twisted intestine will deteriorate rapidly, so observe the horse for increased agitation, pain, or rapid change in vital signs. When the vet arrives, be sure to relate all of your horse's symptoms, his recent activity, and his medical history if the vet is unfamiliar with the horse. Best of luck with your horse keeping, and may colic stay away from your barn this spring!

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Billie Streelman
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Posted on Oct 22, 2010