What is Cold Weather Colic?
Equine colic is one of the more common complaints seen in equines. Afflicted horses can have widely varying intensity levels, depending on the cause and severity of the underlying disorder. Cold weather can bring a number of environmental conditions that can increase the likelihood of developing colic during the winter months. Increases in grain, poorer quality hay and straw, lowered exercise levels, and freezing water can all contribute to the origination of colic in horses.
Colic is a relatively common disorder in equines and should be dealt with promptly to avoid difficult and costly complications. Conditions during the winter months can help to instigate cases of colic.
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Symptoms of Cold Weather Colic in Horses
Symptoms of colic should never be ignored as colic can quickly develop gastric ruptures as well.
- Abdominal bloating
- Abdominal tension
- Abnormal gut noise
- Drop in temperature
- Increased heart rate
- Increased respiration
- Lie down and get up repeatedly
- Looking at belly
- Loss of appetite
- Lying down
- Muscle tremors
- Pawing the ground
- Roll on back
- Sit on haunches
- Stamping feet
- Violent kicking
- Enteritis - Inflammation of the intestine itself that blocks the passage of food through the digestive tract
- Gas colic - Excess gasses or fluids that build up and create pressure in the digestive tract of the horse
- Impaction colic- An accumulation of sand, dirt, feed, or indigestible matter that obstructs the colon
- Enterolith - A variety of impaction colic that is caused by naturally occurring mineral deposits that form around an indigestible object in the horse’s stomach or intestines
- Sand - This type of impaction is usually caused by grazing on grass with dusty soil; it can take anywhere between 30-80 pounds of sand and dirt in the intestinal tract before any symptoms of colic develop
- Intussusception - The intestine can also be blocked when it slides back into itself, usually due to tapeworms or other parasites
- Torsion - Torsion is when the gut develops a twist, blocking the path of the digestive system
Causes of Cold Weather Colic in Horses
There are several things specific to cold weather that can contribute to the development of colic. These can include:
- Diet changes - The common practice of adding additional grains to the diet to keep the horse warmer during winter can cause impactions; the lower quality hay that is more available during the winter months can often be dry and stemmy, further increasing the chances of colic
- Insufficient water - Proper digestion is dependent on sufficient quantities of fresh water; moisture from grazing on grass is often lost in the winter, and water sources tend to freeze over
- Reduced exercise time - Cold and inclement weather can interfere with the amount of time that the horse spends out of its stall, and inactivity can slow down the passage of food through the digestive system, increasing the chances of colic
Diagnosis of Cold Weather Colic in Horses
The examining veterinarian will start with a full physical examination of the horse, focusing on the abdomen area. Along with checking the vital signs, the examiner may choose to use a stethoscope to listen to the stomach for bowel contractions and gurgles. Ultrasound is often used to visualize the digestive system in horses so that obstructions can be identified and corrected as quickly as possible.
A newer variety of ultrasound device is now available that was designed for abdominal evaluation of horses that are suspected of having developed colic, known as a fast localized abdominal sonography of horses, or FLASH for short. This imaging technique is focused on the seven parts of the abdomen that are most likely to identify any abnormalities and determine if emergency surgery will be required to resolve the situation. In some cases, colic can become more difficult to diagnose and more invasive techniques, like laparoscopy or exploratory surgery, may be required to locate and identify the source of the disorder.
Treatment of Cold Weather Colic in Horses
The treatment of your horse’s specific case of colic will depend on what kind of colic is present and how severe the case of colic is. Cases of mild impaction, gas, or torsion may be cleared up by walking, however, if that has not cleared up the symptoms within half an hour, or if the symptoms have intensified, a veterinary professional should be consulted right away. Pain relievers and anti-inflammatories may be helpful to relieve pain and encourage the digestive system to return to its normal functions.
If the underlying cause of the disorder is tapeworms or another type of parasite, then deworming may help to decrease the damage done to the intestine, although it should be done with veterinary supervision as killing too many worms at once can cause new blockages in the system. Your veterinarian may recommend feeding your horse psyllium feed or administering laxatives for impaction cases as it can sometimes help remove unwanted obstructions. Although uncommon, surgery is sometimes required to correct the underlying cause of the colic symptoms.
Recovery of Cold Weather Colic in Horses
There are several steps you can take to reduce the chances of your horse developing colic in the winter. Infestations of worms can cause digestive blockages and intussusceptions any time of year, and a clear parasite prevention program is recommended. Being selective about the feed that you choose for your equine and following your veterinarian's recommendations can save you and your horse a great deal of grief. Ensuring that your horse receives adequate exercise and hydration is also a good measure to prevent colic from forming during the winter months. Prognosis for colic can vary, depending on the cause and severity of the disorder.