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Impaction Colic in Horses

horse-winter-impaction-colic

Impaction colic can sneak in during the winter, when water consumption is low. | Photo courtesy of Horse Journal

The editors at Horse Journal understand that most horse owners want to know what they can do, in their own barns, to help keep their horses healthy. With that and the colder months ahead in mind, they’ve collected some suggestions about impaction in horses, a type of colic, so you can help prevent it in your horse.

Impaction in horses is one of the most common causes of colic. Despite this, there continues to be much misunderstanding about diagnosis, treatment and prognosis. It is especially likely to occur in colder months, when horses normally drink less water.

Impaction colic occurs when fecal matter doesn’t move properly through the horse’s colon and becomes impacted. The first symptom is often a slight case of diarrhea.

Many impaction colics can be avoided entirely by careful management and strict attention to water consumption.

  • Every horse’s water intake drops off with rapid weather changes, especially during cold snaps. The drop can sometimes be sharp.
  • A change from pasture to hay causes a dramatic drop in water consumption (grass is 80% water)
  • Make sure the average-size horse gets at least 1 oz. (two tablespoons) of salt per day, even in winter. Salt triggers the thirst mechanism, causing the horse to seek water. You can put this in his feed (build up gradually, over the course of three days).
  • Monitor water intake carefully. An idle 1,100-lb. horse on a hay and grain diet should drink 6 to 8 gallons per day or 10 to 13 gallons per day if on a hay-only diet.
  • Giving a warm, salted mash, at one or all meals, is cheap insurance. Beet pulp, hay pellets or cubes, wheat bran, concentrate pellets are all suitable for mashes.
  • If you can give your horse warm water in the winter, do so. You can even simply top off the bucket with warm water. If you’re going to incorporate warm water in your program, it’s important to do it consistently, and do it every day.
  • Keep ice removed from water tanks, so the horse can drink. Snow isn’t a water substitute.

 Impaction-Colic Facts

  • Depending on the location, impactions are not always palpable on rectal exam, although that will change if the blockage begins to move through the horse.
  • A horse with impaction may continue to pass manure until all manure distal to the impaction has been passed.
  • Oil will often travel around an impaction and be passed per rectum long before the impaction has been resolved.
  • Tubing with water is more effective than tubing with oil.
  • Tubing can cause a temporary worsening of symptoms, caused by reflex contraction in the colon when the stomach is filled.
  • The pain from impaction colic can be quite severe, but is easily controlled, for up to 12 hours per injection with flunixin meglumine (Banamine). It often needs to be given more frequently than the recommended once a day but this is preferable to narcotics, which slow the intestines.
  • Mucus membrane color remains normal with early impaction colic.
  • Pulse is only moderately elevated with impaction colic.
  • A combination of daily tubing with water (some vets make a slurry with alfalfa meal and salt) and a daily rectal examination to check progress is effective.
  • Water and wet meals should be offered. Grass is ideal.
  • Exercise speeds resolution.
  • Impactions can take up to a week to resolve but should be closely monitored by your veterinarian.

Categories: Illness and Injuries.

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2 Responses

  1. This was a difficult article for me to read as I lost my horse to impaction colic just over a year ago. She had been confined because of recurring laminitis and abcesses so consquently did not have access to grass. My vet told me I could start picking her some grass, which I did, but then she had some diarrhea, so thought maybe I gave her too much. Her manure was less than usual and the stools were singularly formed, but thought it probably was due to the dry hay. Having run out of hay, I had no choice but to give her first-cut grass that had a lot of seed. She seemed ok, so I didn’t worry, and felt it was ok to leave her for a couple of day. But while I was away, she coliced and after several hours of trying to bring her out of it, I felt I had no recourse but to have the vet put her down. I’ve gone through the “what if’s” over and over, and can’t talk about without a flood of tears, so I really hope that whoever reads this article, pays close attention to their horses, especially those that may be in confinement or no access to grass. I also wish that I had been home and maybe waited longer than just 12- 20 hours before putting her down. She was in a lot of pain, NOTHING came out, in spite of tubing water, and mineral oil, walking, etc. Her heart rate was extremely high, she was sweating, and my husband said that at the end, she just put her head down and mineral oil and water came pouring out her nostrils, so we felt then, that we had no recourse as live too far from vets that do surgery.

  2. Toni, My heart goes out to you. Many of us have dealt with impaction colic in situations like this where the only sensible decision is heartbreaking, euthanasia. I’ve experienced it first-hand, too. Your comments may help someone else recognize the symptoms in time. It seems counter-intuitive to think of diarrhea as being an early symptom of impaction, but it truly is. Not always, of course, but if a horse has diarrhea and decreased manure production it’s wise, in my opinion, to call in the vet. Unfortunately, most of us learn this the hard way. Stop putting yourself through the “what ifs.” You are human, you clearly cared deeply for your horse, and you did the best you could do for her. She was a lucky horse to have spent time in such a good home. Cindy Foley, Horse Journal

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