Earlier in April, Irish suffered from what turned out to be an impaction colic episode. If you’re in Northern Colorado, you were aware of the crazy winter storms we had roll through our area. We had continuously cold weather with plenty of snow for a few days in a row. Incidents of impaction colic are higher during cold weather due to the fact that horses tend to drink less. Dehydration is a causing factor for impaction colic.
Many people, horse or otherwise, are aware of the term “colic.” However, let’s get a little bit more specific, sort of…Colic is a general term in the horse world. Colic can mean any abdominal pain and can have numerous causes (seriously, about 100 or so…) so the actual cause of the abdominal pain is what you should attempt to determine in order to accurately treat and hopefully cure.
For now, I will just explain (in mostly basic terms) what impaction colic means. In a few words, impaction colic happens when the intestines become “impacted” or blocked, caused, in Irish’s case, by a large amount of food that got stuck in his gut, because of dehydration. As you would think, the lack of water in the system makes it more difficult for horses to pass food through their intestines.
How horses may present: Irish presented with signs of discomfort (which is common with any kind of colic). You should check vitals when you think a horse might be suffering from colic as they may help indicate the cause. Irish’s temperature was normal (you should regularly check your horse’s temperature so that you have a number off which you can determine a fever). In checking his CRT (capillary refill time), however, he showed a slow refill time (closer to 3 seconds, whereas 1 is normal) and his gums felt tacky. **As a note, you check capillary refill time by lifting the upper lip and pressing your finger to the gum for a second or two with firm pressure. Watch for how long the color returns to normal. One thing you should also check while you are looking at the mouth is the gum area around the teeth. If you notice a dark pink to purple color in rings around the teeth, you should call your vet immediately as this indicates toxins in the system, which is deadly. Most horses are unable to stand still and will try to stretch out and will look back at their stomach when suffering from colic. If you can, check for gut sounds. About every minute or so, horses will make a “pushing” sound as they pass food through their system. Put your ear to their side (either) just in front of their flank and see if you can hear their gut making noise. If you can’t hear anything, this is another indication of impaction colic. If you suspect colic and cannot seem to make your horse comfortable by walking and they haven’t had a bowel movement, and won’t drink water, you should call and talk to your vet. They will advise you on how to proceed.
Irish’s treatment: If a vet comes out, they will conduct an examination. In most cases, this means a rectal exam (yes, that’s exactly what it sounds like) which will determine if there is something blocking the gut. In Irish’s case, the vet felt a football-sized impaction above the pelvic flexure. We then passed a tube (a long plastic tube through which water and mineral oil is pumped to help protect the stomach and loosen things up and lubricate the gut to help pass the impaction). **A note: if your horse has had a tube passed through the right nostril – typical since most people are right-handed – you should alternate which side you pass the tube to help prevent excessive bloody noses. Most vets will inject banamine (in Irish’s case, we used Equioxx), which helps with pain, and Buscopan, which helps with gut motility. Then, we start the waiting game. Don’t feed horses (at all, for any reason) until they start to pass their manure. Every time you notice that your horse has had a bowel movement, feed a little bit of hay to encourage their system. Once you notice the oil pass through their system (manure will be shiny and somewhat soft) you can phase your horse back into their regular diet. I would caution you to follow your vet’s directions as opposed to what you read here in regards to care, feeding and treatment.
On a good note, Irish did fully recover and is back to normal. Other, more extreme circumstances, can call for IVs in a clinic and/or passing multiple tubes, one every few hours, until your horse passes the impaction.
To help prevent, try your best to monitor your horse’s drinking, especially when it’s cold outside. And, never be afraid to consult your vet when in doubt or if you are concerned or have questions.