What is a Gas Colic in Horses?
- It goes without saying that colic and horses go hand in hand. At some point in time, every horse will have some sort of colic episode. It’s not a definitive diagnosis. Instead, colic is the umbrella term for gastro-intestinal pain.
- There are lots of types of colics, of which many look the same! Your vet is the key player to help determine what’s going on, ruling out certain things like a twist, developing a pain management and feeding plan, and helping you support your horse along the way.
“Gas” colic is a broad category that has other causes of colic eliminated, and gas is what’s left.
Can you tell the difference between an itchy roll and a colic roll? Zoom out and look at the bigger picture, and take vital signs!
What is happening during a gas colic episode?
- The horse’s complex and sensitive digestive system houses a boatload of bacteria and microbes. Each of these microscopic creatures is designed to help your horse break down his food and ferment his forage.
- These little buggers eat and poop, just as your horse does. We run into trouble when their eating and pooping creates so much microbe poop, which can manifest itself as gas. Microbes can also create endotoxins, which are able to pass through the horse’s gut and into the horse’s bloodstream, landing in the hooves and triggering laminitis.
All colics can be associated with laminitis and part of the treatment plan should address prevention of laminitis.
- As gas builds up in your horse’s digestive system, the intestines can decide to squeeze like mad to try and move it out. This cramping is painful and often triggers your horse to behave colicky.
What causes that excess gas buildup?
- Let’s think about this in terms of rooters and tooters. The cause is typically started at the mouth end of things. It’s all about what your horse eats. The main mechanism is an overload of starches or sugars or something new. When all of that good stuff hits your horse’s digestive system, those microbes basically attend a rave and start pumping out the pH changes, gas production, and endotoxins.
- Any change of in a horse’s diet can create a colic situation. As many and Equine Nutritionist can tell you, making any changes to a diet gradually over several weeks is the best way to go.
- The quality of your horse’s diet. You may not be changing anything, but a moldy bale of his normal hay can trigger a colic episode. Same stuff, but not so good. And how’s his water? Nice and fresh, or more science-experiment looking? No good digestion comes from a horse that won’t drink, or has sketchy water.
- How much starch and sugar he has eaten. Fresh spring grass? Fresh fall grass? A break-in to the feed bin? Wrestled out of his grazing muzzle? Any instance when a horse has scarfed down rich and sugary foods is a recipe for colic and laminitis.
Too much of a good thing in the rooter department can create problems in the tooter department.
What are gas colic complications?
- There’s a lot written about gas colics and that most of them resolve with a little bit of vet help and some diligence. HOWEVER, things can go sideways, and not in a good way.
- Sometimes it’s just gas, sometimes there’s gas combined with impaction of food or manure. In this case, there’s literally nowhere for the gas to go. It’s a bit of a double whammy. Surgery, hospitalization, and supportive care may be necessary.
- In other cases, there’s a displacement of part of the digestive system. This could be due to the gas moving things around, or something has moved around and is causing gas to be trapped. A chicken and egg situation. Once again, surgery may be necessary here.
- There’s also the chance that colitis can happen. This is when the cecum and colon of the horse are inflamed. It’s rare, painful, and can be related to infection, or not.
- Twists and entrapments of the digestive system can also occur. Is this the cause or reaction to gas colic? Possibly either. Death of the twisted tissue can happen as blood flow is compromised. Surgical repair is required. These types of cases range from somewhat painful to excruciating.
- If there is enough backup of the small intestine, the stomach may fill with fluids from the small intestine. As horses are not able to burp, the pressure inside becomes too great. This may lead to a stomach rupture. YIKES.
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What are the signs of gas colic?
- Your horse will likely show many signs of general colic, and it’s up to your vet to figure out the most likely scenario. For this type of colic specifically, a horse will likely show the following signs:
- Kicking at his belly. This may happen to his midline, his sides, or behind him like a kick.
- Looking at his flanks. Some horses instinctively look around and may even poke their nose to their sides.
- Bloated look and hard sides. If you have a tape measure handy, it’s a good idea to track bloating over time. Just put a little mark on your horse where you held the tape measure so you can track it. Don’t measure a horse’s bloating at the girth, go about mid belly where it hangs the lowest. There’s no real scientific value here, but since our eyes deceive us, this is a way to measure if he’s getting gassier or not.
- A funny stance. Horses in pain will park themselves in silly positions! Maybe he’s all stretched out, maybe not.
- Frequent urination in small amounts. This is a way that horses try and get some of the pressure out. Does it work? No idea, but horses are often seen in the urination stance or just dribbling a little bit.
- Strange gut sounds or absent gut sounds. The fancy word for gut sounds and gurgles is borborygmi. Hard to spell, easy to keep track of.
These spots, on both sides, need to be monitored for gut sounds.
- Acting painful, and then ok. Then painful, then ok. Often, a gas colic will come and go as the gas moves around in your horses. Eating and drinking, which may not be advised, can often trigger an episode of muscle spasm and cramping. When something hits the stomach, the whole digestive system ramps up and the cramps can return.
- Laying down and getting up repeatedly or rolling. This movement is usually interpreted as a way to get comfortable or relieve some pressure. It might be okay for some horses to do this to help get the gas out! Farting is definitely encouraged.
- You should also be aware that there’s no real evidence that rolling causes torsions or twists or other serious problems. Some horses that roll are able to pass gas and get some comfort. Some horses will roll violently and hurt themselves in other ways. This is one reasons it’s critical to talk to your vet and get a plan of action before they arrive.
- You may be wondering about walking your horse as well. Again, follow your vet’s instructions. If walking your horse is stressful, unproductive or dangerous for either of you, don’t. Sometimes quiet rest is best. A horse that’s just plain tired will appreciate rest instead of being forced to walk around.
What should you tell your vet when you call?
- The more valuable information you can share with your vet, the better. Know your horse’s current and normal vital signs. There’s minimal use in telling your vet his heart rate if you don’t know what it normally is.
- Be able to share descriptions of his gut sounds. This is best done with a stethoscope. A horse that’s belly kicking will nail you if you try to use your ear squished on his flank.
- Gather what information you can about his most recent meals. Did he finish? How much water has he consumed? What about his manure and urine output? What’s his manure like – hard, soft, smaller than normal, bigger than normal?
- For a complete list of things to pay attention to, this colic article has a checklist for you.
What will your vet do when they arrive?
- Your vet will likely talk to you and take your horse’s vital signs. A rectal exam is done for a few reasons. Sometimes, impactions can be felt. The vet will also be able to feel for some twists and displacements. If your vet needs to return, a follow-up rectal exam can easily track changes going on inside.
- It’s also likely that your vet will want to pass a nasogastric tube into your horse’s stomach. This serves a few purposes. It will check for any reflux from the small intestine. Your vet will also be able to smell and release any gas in the stomach.
- Some medications and treatments can also be administered by the nasogastric tube. Water helps with hydration, and mineral oil can help lubricate the digestive tract if there’s the possibility of blockages, impactions, and general slowing of the digestive process.
- If your horse has gorged himself on grass, hay, or feeds, the nasogastric tube can deliver activated charcoal and binding agents to help slow things down. This can help prevent the massive microbe buffet in the gut.
- Oral or injectable meds may also be given. NSAIDs for pain manangement, like Banamine, are commonly used. There are also medications that help soften and control those gas spasms and cramps. These typically don’t last as long as Banamine but will absolutely help him feel better.
- There will also be a period of time where food and water need to be carefully withheld or given in smaller amounts. There’s no formula for every horse, the reintroduction to food will vary case by case.
How can you help your horse during a gas colic episode?
- The best thing you can do for your horse is to get your vet involved at the first sign of colic.
- I always suggest taking notes over the course of a colic episode, especially if your vet prescribes medications. You will then be able to note when they wear off and to what extent they help. Even with NSAIDs on board, many horses that develop complications overcome the pain relief and start to show signs of pain. This is an important red flag and tracking time is critical.
- Also keep track of your horse’s vital signs and gut sounds. Thermometers and stethoscopes are affordable and provide such valuable information!
- Also take some preventative measures against laminitis. Once a horse shows you there’s pain in his hooves, there’s been damage. Ice those puppies for hours. HOURS. Your vet can tell you how many days to do this. Ice, ice, ice, ice, some more ice. And yes, I said DAYS.
Ice works wonders.
How can you help prevent gas colic?
- Colic prevention really boils down to horse and barn management. It’s everyday routines, maximizing your horse’s health and memorizing everything about his body and routines.
Feed and water considerations:
- Keep it all fresh, clean, and mold and insect-free.
- Slow feeders and mats are a great way to encourage more natural eating and keep sand out of his belly.
- Make sure any changes to supplements, hay, feeds, and even pasture times are made over several weeks.
Barn management considerations:
- Keep manure and urine picked out of stalls, paddocks, and pastures. This helps you track his habits and your will soon learn his manure and urine normals.
- Make sure walking, playing, and regular exercise are part of his life. Motion is lotion, for all parts of a horse’s body!
- Tend to your horse’s mental health, also! Does he need toys, enrichment, or help battling a vice or bad habit? What about a friend? Is he content and relaxed in his stall, paddock, and/or pasture?
The rooter end, make sure your horse’s dental health isn’t causing chewing and digestion issues.
Overall health considerations:
- Stay ahead of your horse’s dental health. Your horse may not need yearly dental floating, but he needs to have his mouth thoroughly inspected at least twice yearly.
- Make sure your farm and horse have proper parasite management. It’s no longer recommended to use a scheduled dewormer. Instead, use fecal exams and targeted deworming to control your horse’s parasites.
Every day is a change to get to know your horse better. Treasure that time and soon you will be able to read his mind and his body!
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