VET’S DIARY: It’s not just humans who suffer overindulgence

It’s been the season for overindulgence, sometimes causing us humans to reach for the Rennies. Bear a thought for those equines that can suffer from abdominal discomfort, writes Ed Chinn.

We have seen a number of cases of equine colic (abdominal pain) recently. These cases have ranged from milder cases that respond to medical therapy and management through to severe colic requiring general anaesthesia and surgery.

Late last Wednesday night, I had a phone call regarding Ben, a much-loved children’s pony. He had been lethargic since being brought in from the field that afternoon. He had not eaten his evening feed (unheard of in this individual’s case). In the last half an hour he had started looking at his abdomen, sweating up and rolling and the owner was understandably quite concerned. I was at the stable within 20 minutes.

Initial clinical examination included listening to his heart and lungs and assessing their rates, assessing gastro-intestinal motility (sounds were very gassy and increased). I gave Ben an injection to reduce the motility of his intestines and provide some much-needed pain relief.

Next part of the clinical examination was the rectal examination – donning a metre-long glove and plenty of lubricant, an incredible amount of information can be discovered. The intestines of a horse are a staggering 18-25 metres long (the length of a tennis court!) Ben took it all in his stride and no significant abnormalities were found.

Next test was to assess whether fluid was accumulating in his stomach – a stomach tube (not dissimilar to a hosepipe) is passed up via a nostril down the oesophagus into the stomach and fluid quantity and character noted. No excess fluid, another positive sign.

Ben’s head collar was removed so we could observe his behaviour and response to the medication given. He immediately started rolling in the stable looking very unhappy.

A horse with colic can be quite alarming as they can behave unpredictably. To alleviate abdominal pain they attempt to get themselves into a more comfortable position by lying down, rolling and stretching out, often with little regard for what is in their way.

There are many different causes of colic although often we cannot be sure what the inciting cause is. A sudden change in diet is always a risk factor for colic. This may be a horse spending more time in a stable and eating more hay/haylage or even a change in the growth of grass in the same field.

Intestinal worms are also a risk factor. We recommend performing faecal worm egg counts and then worming as necessary (strategic dosing) rather than just using worming products at routine intervals.

However, tapeworms do not show up on worm egg counts and so there is a need to use a tape wormer product twice yearly or to blood sample an individual horse to check their tapeworm infection level.

It is advisable to seek veterinary advice on the most appropriate worming product at different times of the year; this advice varies depending on the horse’s management, age, and group size among other factors.

Dental problems can also be an important factor contributing to colic (and weight loss) particularly during the winter. If a horse, pony or donkey has oral pain they will not grind the longer fibre of hay or haylage down into shorter lengths. Therefore they will not be able to digest the food as efficiently and may be more prone to colic, often due to a bowel impaction.

The only change to Ben’s diet or routine had been a change from haylage to hay over the last 24 hours.

He had been regularly wormed but had not had his teeth examined for two years.

After a couple of minutes Ben stood up, passed a very large volume of wind and then wondered what everybody was looking at. He then started pestering us for food!

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