Rocky Bay Equine Newsletter
September 2020

It’s 2020 and fall is coming, what could go wrong?

Have you ever blamed your mood on changes in the weather? Have you ever noticed increased joint pain or swelling as a storm moves in? While the science is a bit sketchy, there's plenty of anecdotal reports say that some folks can predict weather changes by the way their joints feel. Conventional wisdom suggests that changes in barometric pressure, specifically decreasing pressure as comes with meteorologic low fronts that regularly circulate along our coast in winter may be the cause of changes we feel in our bodies and minds. Similarly, that profoundly sensitive beast, the horse seems notoriously susceptible to environmental changes that accompany the onset of fall and winter in our region. We may not know the exact science behind it (it is undoubtedly multi-factorial) but we can certainly tell by our medical records that the incidence of colic treatment increases during the transition of summer into fall and winter.

There, I’ve said it, the “c” word, a horse owner’s nightmare. But here’s the deal, you are not helpless against the potential increase in colic episodes. You can re-balance that teeter totter back into a safer zone by focusing on good management details that you already know. So let’s go back to school on a few horse husbandry basics. Attention to detail is probably your most valuable management practice. Notice how much manure your horse produces, how much they’re drinking. Notice if they paced the stall all night, notice whether or not they eat their dinner, notice their mannerisms and how and when they change. 

Providing good quality feed (high on the roughage and low on the concentrates) and clean water may be an obvious, simple necessity, but even that can sometimes get complicated when aiming to keep a finicky GI tract in order. You may have just gotten a new load of hay, it’s the final cutting and not quite as leafy fresh as the spring load. Did you remember to make any feed changes slowly, maybe mixing in a little of the old hay with the new? If exercise levels (riding, turn out) will change with the season, re-evaluate rations to maintain your horse at an optimal weight through the winter. This is also important for older, less thrifty animals, just make any feed changes slowly and carefully. Some say that with cooler weather horses don’t drink as much and end up with impaction colic. It’s probably not nearly that simple, but you can be extra diligent and encourage your horses to drink with fresh, clean water sources available at all times. It’s ok to accommodate picky drinkers. If they like their water better warm, cold, from a particular bucket or with a touch of electrolyte powder or apple juice, give it to them. Exercise is also a great inducement for drinking with the added bonus of helping to keep the bowels moving too. As the days shorten something as simple as an extra hand walk around the barn can be a good thing to do and certainly beats a trailer ride later in the night. 

Ok, so you did all that and still you feel a little bad juju coming your way. (It is 2020 after all!) Do NOT ignore that feeling. You don’t need to panic, but keep in mind that wishful thinking is never a good strategy. You know your horse best and if you think something might be wrong then you must stay alert. The level of “alert” depends on you and the circumstances. It may mean you get up for a late night stall check, you ask someone else to check in on your horse while you’re at work or you make a quick trip home when you’d really have preferred to go grocery shopping. Again, you are not helpless, you can do a basic physical examination of your horse. Review the poster (below) showing how and where to take vital signs and what the normal ranges are. In fact, review it now when your horse is not sick so you know what’s normal for him/her. If you think your horse might be showing signs of colic it’s time to call the vet. Sooner is better than later and the more information you can give us the better we can advise you. We want to know what you are seeing that makes you think of colic. Is he/she just not eating, head down looking miserable, laying down inappropriately (unusual behaviors), pawing the ground, getting up and down, rolling? When did your horse eat last, has he/she passed manure, how much, what does it look like (firm, dry, wet, diarrhea) We will absolutely be impressed when you rattle off his/her heart and respiratory rates, rectal temperature and whether or not you hear any GI motility. (Bonus if you tell us which quadrants you hear sounds and which you do not!)

It IS colic, now what? We have all had to learn a little bit about not having immediate answers when it comes to medical conditions and while colic is not a viral pandemic, it does have it’s own mysterious ways that are only revealed with time. The truth is that most colic episodes respond to time and simple treatment and we never know the precise cause of the abdominal pain. We can make some pretty good guesses as to what might be going on inside based on history, physical examination and presenting signs, all of which inform our treatment decisions. Noticing signs of colic early is extremely important. Most horses go through mild bouts and can get better on their own by withdrawing food for a bit and/or with minimal treatment. Medical care might include nasogastric intubation and administration of fluids and lubricant and judicious use of pain relievers, muscle relaxants or sedatives. Some horses require more intense medical treatment and diagnostic evaluation including intravenous fluids, repeated rectal evaluations and abdominocentesis or ultrasound. For the few that do not respond to medical management expedient transfer to a surgical facility is important for optimal surgical outcomes. We refer to the great doctors at Pilchuck Equine Hospital for intensive care or surgical treatment of our colic patients when necessary. Surgical treatment of colic in horses actually has quite a high success rate especially when diagnosis and treatment occur early in the course of disease. We are lucky to have surgical options when colic cannot be cured medically but surgery is expensive and not always the best option under some circumstances. Insurance programs exist to help with financing including the “ColiCare” program offered by SmartPak. It is important to consider (preferably now when your horse is not in the middle of a severe colic episode) whether or not you are able to accept the emotional, physical and financial load should your horse need surgery. It does not make you a bad person if you decide that surgical treatment is not an option for the horses in your care, there are a myriad of extenuating factors that weigh in on that decision. Considering a few “what if’s” now while your animals are healthy will be very helpful if the time ever comes when you must make the tough decisions. If you know for certain that you would choose surgery if necessary and your horses are stabled away from home be sure that their caretakers know your wishes and any contingency factors in case you are not available when your horse gets sick. Conversely, if you know that surgical intervention is not the right way to go for you and your horse we may treat their colic signs slightly differently (especially pain control and sedation) than one that is a surgical candidate.

Sending all our best wishes for your personal health and wellness as we continue to negotiate the pandemic.Thanks for working with us to minimize spread of covid 19. We are here for you when your animals need us. Take care, stay healthy!