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Sand colic doesn’t happen at the beach

Or Surf, sand, and colic??
By Diane Rhodes, DVM

If you have owned horses long enough, you have likely had to deal with an episode of colic.  Colic is a general term used to describe a horse with gastrointestinal up-set.  There are many potential causes of colic, but for the purpose of this discussion we will focus on sand colic.

Intestinal sand accumulation is a common cause of colic in this region in the late summer and early fall when the majority of pastures are dry and lacking vegetation.  Horses that are fed directly on the ground are likely to ingest significant amounts of sand as are horses that graze the remaining vegetation.

Many of the clinical signs of sand colic are similar to other potential causes of colic, including pawing, rolling, inappetance, lethargy, and flank watching.  In addition, horses with sand colic may have an unthrifty appearance, a low-grade fever, a history of chronic colic, and a history of soft to cow pie manure.  When listening to your horses gut sounds, the veterinarian may be able to auscult sand in the ventral part of the abdomen. This can sound like “waves on the beach”.  Not hearing sand, however, does not rule this out as a cause of colic.

Diagnosing a horse with sand colic starts with a thorough physical exam.  A sample of feces may be collected and floated in water to check for sand in the manure.  In some cases, ultrasound of the GI tract may show some evidence of colon wall thickening as the sand is physically irritating to the intestine.  The best test for confirming the presence of sand is abdominal radiographs.  Sand appears bright white on the x-ray and can usually be seen in the ventral part of the abdomen. These bright deposits are seen in the following radiographs:

Treatment of a horse with sand colic depends on the severity of the clinical signs and the amount of sand present within the large intestine.  A typical treatment plan includes, but is not limited to, an anti-inflammatory drug for pain control and passing a stomach tube multiple times to administer oil and water to assist with the passage of sand. Careful monitoring of the patient’s comfort level and fecal output is important as some horses will obstruct with sand, or their colon may become displaced due to gas accumulation.  In some cases, surgery may be required to remove the sand from the large intestine.  Sand colic surgery generally carries a good prognosis for recovery.

The best way to prevent sand colic is to completely eliminate sand from the diet.  This may require feeding horses in stalls on floor mats. Horses fed in feeders outside may still knock the hay out of the feeder onto the ground where they can pick up sand.  Rubber mats can be placed around the feeders, but these need to be swept daily to prevent the accumulation of sand on the mats.  For horses that tend to graze and “vacuum” the ground  (regardless if food is present), a grazing muzzle may be applied to prevent sand accumulation.  There are products on the market that contain psyllium seeds or husks that are meant to be fed monthly to help remove sand from the GI tract.  Pysllium seed is mostly soluble fiber which forms a gel and helps to physically remove sand.

Colic is a frustrating and scary condition for horse owners, but with the right prevention strategies, sand colic can be avoided.  Unfortunately, the key to prevention is eliminating access to sand, which is often easier said than done.