Winter Colic in Horses
Monica L. O’Brien, DVM

When the weather turns cold, it's always good to think about the preventing winter colic. We tend to see an increase in the incidence of colic during the winter months, especially in older horses.

Horses are now living longer than ever and it's not uncommon to see healthy and active horses that are in their 20s and early 30s. Horses at this age, however, are at an increased risk of developing colic, mostly caused by impactions. Other causes could be lipomas (fatty tumors), cecal impaction from tapeworms, or damage to the blood supply of the intestines from chronic infestation from parasites (Strongyles).

Impactions tend to occur in older horses due to dental problems, inadequate consumption of water, decreased exercise, or a combination of the above. These impactions occur in the large colon (cecum) or small colon. When horses have sharp points and hooks on their teeth, they are less able to chew their food and will often swallow their food whole. Inadequate chewing decreases the amount of salivation and lubrication and leads to poorly masticated food reaching the intestine before being properly digested.This is exacerbated by decreased water consumption during the winter months causing an impaction. Hay, with a lower water content than grass, further adds to the problem.

Clinical signs of mild colic include pawing the ground, sweating, looking around at the belly, restlessness, lack of appetite, stamping the hind feet, and lying down. With more severe, unrelenting pain, horses may:paw the ground violently, appear drawn up or bloated in the belly, have muscle tremors or straining, kick violently, sweat profusely, lie down and get up frequently, roll or lie on their back, sit on haunches like a dog, have an elevated or below normal (with shock setting in) temperature, have an increased respiration rate, have an elevated heart rate, or have few or no gut sounds. Male horses may stretch out and relax their penis, without urinating.

Horses should be treated with a combination of analgesics,oral laxatives and intravenous fluids, depending on their dehydration status and the severity of the impaction. Some impactions may be so severe that hospitalization or surgery becomes necessary.

Horses need to have access to fresh water 24 hours a day. During freezing temperatures the water supply needs to have the ice broken or a heating device should be placed to prevent freezing. The average 1,100 pound horse can drink 8-12 gallons of water a day. Water consumption decreases during the colder months due to the cold temperature of the water but by warming the water to at least 45 degrees Fahrenheit, water consumption can be kept to optimum levels.

So, before the severe cold weather sets in:

  • Schedule your horse’s yearly dental exam and float their teeth if necessary;
  • Adhere to a regular de-worming schedule; and
  • Make sure your horse has plenty of exercise and water.

This article comes from Rose Hill Veterinary Practice website, www.rosehillvet.com