Being well-prepared for colic could mean the difference between life and death
Her name means miracle. And that’s what Valutha Milagra—or, more affectionately, “Luta”—is. Luta survived an extremely serious colic and two back-to-back colic surgeries after ingesting a porcupine quill at 11 months old. Today, at 8 years old, Luta’s digestive system is tricky, risky, and unreliable. But the beautiful Andalusian is alive, thriving, and “playful, mischievous, and energetic,” says owner Judy Rutherford of Rutherford Rubicon Farm, near Saskatoon, Canada.
While Luta’s survival might seem like a miracle, it’s not entirely. Rutherford’s sharp observation skills, quick thinking, and readiness for an emergency had a lot to do with the outcome. Because no matter how careful you are and how much you guard your horses against it, colic can happen. An estimated 10% of horses colic every year—and up to 10% of those will need intensive medical or surgical care.
The survivors are usually the ones blessed by living under the care of well-prepared humans. Here’s how you can be one of those owners.
Know the Risks
You might not be able to stop all colics from happening, but you can limit them through smart management.
“A natural environment is a good risk reduction tool,” says Stacy Anderson, DVM, MVSc, PhD, Dipl. ACVS-LA, assistant professor of large animal surgery at the Lincoln Memorial University College of Veterinary Medicine, in Harrogate, Tennessee, and a former equestrian facility manager. “Pasture, free access to grazing, and a clean water source all help lower the colic risk.”
Casja Isgren, BVetMed, MRCVS, an equine surgeon at the University of Liverpool Equine Hospital, in the U.K., agrees. “It’s also important to keep the same routine, without drastic changes in management,” she adds.
Impactions and large colon displacement are common management-related colics. They can occur when the horse is stressed or can’t move freely enough to stimulate healthy gut movement.
Constant access to fresh, clean water can keep intestinal contents moist, smooth, and easy to digest. That’s especially important in winter, when water freezes or gets too cold to be appealing.
Hay should be good-quality, not “stemmy,” dry, or moldy, and free of foreign objects such as wire, dead animals, or, yes, porcupine quills. “It would be awfully hard to find quills or similar objects in hay, but it doesn’t hurt to take a quick look,” says Anderson, who performed Luta’s surgeries while based at the University of Saskatchewan’s Western College of Veterinary Medicine, in Saskatoon.
Horses can also develop sand colic if they’re fed hay on sandy or limestone surfaces, she adds.
Fecal egg count analyses two or three times a year and deworming, if indicated, can reduce parasite-related colic risk. And dental care every six to 12 months helps your horse chew properly, converting food into digestible quantities and triggering secretion of digestion-enhancing saliva, says Isgren.
Unfortunately, though, the equine gastrointestinal tract does have a somewhat precarious design, leading to unpreventable colics such as pedunculated lipoma strangulations—fatty tumors that form, wrap around, and squeeze the stomach and/or intestines. With good preparation and quick response, however, even such strangulation cases can turn out positive.
Know the Signs
A prepared owner is an observant owner. Kicking or biting at the stomach and repeated rolling or even thrashing on the ground are obvious signs of colic. But subtle signs almost always precede the obvious. And the sooner you recognize a problem, the better.
“You really have to know your own horse and know what’s normal for him and what’s not,” says Isgren. Knowing your horse’s normal means being aware of not only his regular vital signs (temperature, pulse, and respiratory rate) and eating habits but also his behavior.
“A lot of times owners just realize something’s wrong with the horse because he’s not acting like his usual self,” Anderson says. “That can be a reliable sign.”
Increased pulse and respiratory rates suggest the horse is in pain—even if he’s not expressing it. A temperature increase could suggest an inflammation- or infection-related colic, Isgren says. Your veterinarian can teach you to take vital signs during a wellness visit, or you can learn how at TheHorse.com/30388.
A common first sign is an unfinished meal. If the horse is also producing less manure, it’s even greater cause for alarm. The horse might be restless or lethargic, too. “Some horses stretch out and act like they need to urinate,” Anderson says.
Distinguishing normal from abnormal bowel sounds is another important skill to have. Start listening for bowel sounds in your healthy horse, using a stethoscope if you prefer, so you’ll recognize what’s unusual for him.
Know Whom to Contact and When
Most importantly, establish your emergency veterinary contact before you need one. Save your veterinarian’s number to your cell phone contacts under the name “Vet,” so it’s easy to find even if you’re in a panic or if someone else needs to make the call. Don’t be afraid to use that number, either. A call to report a colicky horse doesn’t mean you’re bothering your veterinarian. Pick up the phone as soon as you see the first signs.
“So many people think, ‘Oh I’ll just walk him around or give him some Banamine to see how he does before I call the vet,’” Anderson says. “But I recommend always contacting the vet first. Then the vet can (advise on what to do now and) come out later, or right away if the symptoms are severe.”
Waiting too long is bad for both your horse and your wallet, says Isgren. “Sometimes people call too late,” she says. “It’s really frustrating. The horse has been colicking all day, and they finally call us at 8 p.m. Or maybe he’s been ‘off-color’ for a few days with an impaction that’s not violently painful, but just keeps getting worse and worse over time. The longer you wait, the harder it is to get the impaction to shift. And you also risk irreversible colon damage.”
Know What Could Happen
A prepared owner is also an informed owner. Read about the types of colic, how they’re treated, the decisions you could face, the costs involved, and treatment success (or failure) rates.
“Mostly, owners should realize how optimistic they can be about colic now,” Anderson says. “We’ve come very far in treating horses for colic, especially in surgical cases.”
Colic surgery for nonstrangulating lesions (injury or disease has damaged the intestine, but blood supply is not compromised), when performed in established referral clinics, has close to a 100% success rate, she says. If the lesion is strangulating—such as with the aforementioned pendunculated lipomas or any sort of entrapment or twist—the success rate is lower, but it still hovers around 70%.
Having a good concept of what’s involved with colic diagnoses, treatments, and prognoses means you’re not caught off guard when your veterinarian describes them to you while your horse is seriously ill. As an informed horse owner you can be prepared to speak calmly with your horse’s health care professionals and understand what’s happening.
“I encourage owners to read up on colic and have a good grasp of the condition, provided they’re getting their information from reliable sources,” says Isgren. Veterinarian-reviewed articles such as those in The Horse or on equine veterinary clinics’ owner-dedicated websites are good places to go for trustworthy information.
As mentioned, a stethoscope and a thermometer are useful to have if your horse is showing signs of colic. But it’s rare that veterinarians allow owners to keep prescription medications such as Banamine on hand, our sources say.
“In the U.K., we’re not even allowed to leave many prescription medications at the farm,” Isgren says. “So we really couldn’t advise that.”
“It’s important to not self-treat horses,” Anderson says. “Medications should only be given after consultation with a veterinarian.”
She does suggest keeping electrolytes in your barn. Electrolytes can encourage the horse to drink more, which will help encourage normal digestion. Still, owners should check with their veterinarian before giving electrolytes or anything else to a colicking horse.
Equip Your Facilities
A prepared owner has prepared facilities. Colic often happens in the night, and veterinarians can do their jobs much better if they can get to your horse easily. Is your barn reachable by truck? That will help your veterinarian bring in his or her equipment. Make sure the horse is in the barn when the veterinarian arrives (unless he’s thrashing violently—in which case he might be better off in a small paddock to prevent injury), so you won’t waste time going out into a dark field to find him.
Also, does your barn have running water? Water is necessary for certain diagnostic and treatment procedures. And does it have a light source? “There’s nothing like having to pass a stomach tube through by flashlight,” Isgren says.
Have an Emergency Transport Plan
The classic mistake in a moment of colic crisis is lack of transport, our sources say. A horse’s condition can get worse during trailering delays, and “that can affect the outcome of his treatment or surgery at the hospital,” Isgren says.
If you have a trailer, make sure it’s available and usable at all times. In other words, the lights and brakes are working, the tire pressure is correct, and you’re not using it as a storage shed. If you don’t have a trailer, plan for having access to one in the event of an emergency—even in the middle of the night. Contact a friend, trainer, or nearby equestrian center to see if you can arrange for trailer-sharing or renting in urgent situations.
“About 10-15% of colic cases get referred to the hospital, depending on where you are and on the comfort level of the treating veterinarian in dealing with your case,” Anderson says. “People need to be prepared for it to happen to them.”
Have a Financial Plan
Colic can be expensive. Surgeries can cost more than $10,000 in complicated cases. Even without surgery, hospitalization costs can run high. Are you prepared for the financial hit if your horse colics?
“Of the cases that get referred, about half go to surgery,” Anderson says of her experience. “It’s a huge expense, and it can be a shock. Educating yourself in advance about prices and having a financial plan for that can help.”
Consider creating a “colic savings account,” or look into major medical and/or mortality insurance. But keep in mind that coverage varies widely.
“Some insurance companies won’t cover surgery if the horse has had any kind of colic in the past year—and that can discourage people from calling out the veterinarian in milder cases,” Isgren says. And some plans won’t cover colic for horses over a certain age.
Read the policy’s details, and be sure you understand how it works before signing with an insurance company.
Make Decisions Ahead of Time
It’s okay to establish limits, both financial and emotional. You can decide how much you’re willing to put you and your horse through in the event of serious colic. But the time to establish those limits isn’t when he’s thrashing about or droopy-headed and doped-up, waiting for your approval for surgery. The time for that is now—when your head is clear and when you’re not fatigued from hours of waiting and worrying.
“It’s always during these highly emotional, high-pressure situations that big decisions—literally life and death decisions—are being made,” Anderson says. “But it doesn’t have to be that way.”
Sit down with family or friends and have a serious discussion. Talk about finances, what you can afford, and the horse’s market and sentimental value. “These aren’t easy things to talk about,” she says, “but a decision now is going to relieve a lot of the stress and emotional angst that come with a colic crisis later.”
And know that it’s okay to choose euthanasia, Anderson adds. “No veterinarian is going to judge an owner for opting for a humane end of life for financial reasons when a horse is suffering,” she says.
Your insurance policy might also affect your decision. “Some policies require that a horse have surgery if he’s covered for mortality; otherwise they won’t pay,” Anderson says.
Whatever your choice, make sure you communicate it clearly to friends, family, your veterinarian, and anyone who takes care of your horse during your absence. “Never leave your horse in someone’s care, not even overnight, without clear instructions about what to do in the event of emergency,” Anderson says. “There’s nothing worse than needing to go into surgery with a seriously ill horse and still waiting for news from a missing owner.”
You can never prepare fully for colic. It will always take you by surprise and probably at the least convenient time. But you can put a few plans in place and study up before colic hits to navigate the episode as smoothly as possible. When you’re prepared, you’ll be less panicked and better equipped to provide your horse care. You’ll also know you’ve done right by your horse, no matter the outcome.