Impaction colic over winter

by | Jan 17, 2024 | Our Blog

With the UK temperatures plummeting, and fluctuating, vets are seeing an increased incidence of impaction colic. There are certain colics that are more likely to occur in winter than at other times of the year. A veterinarian called out on a freezing, winter day will expect to find a certain type of colic, unlike during the warmer, summer months.

Most impaction colic cases are caused by reduced movement of the large intestine which are usually caused by lack of access to good quality forage, reduced water intake and exercise, sometimes inevitable when horses are stabled due to bad weather. This combination can lead to reduced motility within the digestive system and reducing material moving through the horse’s gut efficiently. This slowing process promotes reabsorption of more water on the way, drying out partially digested feed material and resulting in a blockage. Impactions are often commonly found in the pelvic flexure, a hairpin bend in the large colon where the diameter decreases dramatically as it bends back on itself. Material can get trapped more easily here. Once a blockage has formed, trapped feed and gas can start to build up behind the blockage causing painful distension of the intestine. The impacted food material places pressure on the gut wall and causes gas to build up around the obstruction. This stimulates sensitive nerves in the gut wall, called stretch receptors, which send pain signals to the brain. It is these pain signals that result in a horse displaying signs of abdominal discomfort – the signs of colic that vets and owners recognise.

In winter, whether your horse is in or out they possibly don’t drink as much, as their water is cold or perhaps frozen. Mobility is reduced due to being stabled for longer periods or simply standing around the pile of hay day and night in the field. It’s always important to remember that impaction can just as easily impact stabled horses as well as those turned out 24/7. Keeping your horse hydrated and encouraging them to drink more in winter is key, studies show that horses drank 40% more water when offered warm water at feeding times. Make sure plenty of wet feed is available, soaked hay and wet mashes to increase water intake and minimise the risks of impaction colic.

Impactions are typically easy to diagnose — many can be confirmed during rectal palpations — and treatment is often straightforward. A dose of painkillers, possibly a sedative, along with hydration usually gets things moving again. Keeping the horse comfortable is essential – so pain relief is important. The vet will try to overhydrate the gut to rehydrate the contents of the large colon and soften the impaction. This is done by stomach tubing where the tube is gently inserted up through the nose, passing down the oesophagus and into the stomach. Depending on the size of the horse, it’s usually around 6-8 litres of water. Electrolytes are also added and this also gives the gut lining energy and encourages gut mobility. In more severe cases, intravenous fluids will be administered and this usually means a stay at the practice.

Gas build-up can be a painful and life-threatening problem as the gas in the cecum is still being produced but can’t go anywhere. The impaction itself may be so large that it is stretching the gastro intestinal attachments and causing pain. The gas in the cecum is still being produced but can’t go anywhere. The build-up of gas becomes like a big balloon inside the abdomen, which is very sore. If that gas can’t go anywhere there is the potential that it distends so much that the horse can get a tear in the cecum which is life threatening. Horses in this situation are in a lot of pain and would need emergency surgery.

In certain situations the vet may try to release some of the gas from the cecum from the outside to give the horse some pain relief. To do this they would put a canula in from the outside to release the gas. It’s not likely to be a solution, but may relieve the pressure a little although the horse will still have a very large impaction to clear. Horses don’t cope well with this kind of surgery, unlike cows, so it’s not really the ideal solution.

Adding Colikare to your horse’s daily feed can help disperse trapped gas and reduce uncomfortable gassy build ups.

Winter can be a scary time of year for horse owners, with a higher risk of impaction colic, but with correct management the risk can be significantly reduced.

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