Controlling equine colitis

by SOURCE School of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University

Bryan-College Station—Among the numerous gastrointestinal disorders affecting horses, colitis can be a challenging and potentially serious condition, depending on the severity of the horse’s symptoms and the condition’s underlying cause.

Dr. Amanda Trimble, a clinical assistant professor of equine internal medicine at the Texas A&M School of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, explores how owners can manage the condition if it develops as well as tips for preventing it.

After a veterinarian diagnoses a horse with colitis, determining a treatment can be challenging because of the condition’s many possible causes. As such, treatment typically relies on supportive care to manage diarrhea and dehydration, the most common symptoms of acute (rapid-onset) colitis.

“Horses with acute diarrhea will generally need intravenous fluids, plasma to help their protein levels, anti-diarrheals, gastroprotectants to protect the gastrointestinal tract from further damage and irritation, anti-inflammatories, and ice boots to help prevent laminitis,” Trimble said. “Certain chronic cases can be managed at home with specific therapies but may need intensive hospital management, depending on the cause and severity.”

Trimble pointed out that effective management of infectious colitis also relies on good biosecurity, or practices designed to prevent the introduction and spread of disease among animals and humans.

One such practice is isolating horses with colitis and washing hands after being around them.

“If we do not know the cause of colitis or the horse has tested positive for an infectious disease that can spread to other horses and animals, we recommend keeping the horse isolated until it tests negative or has not had any clinical signs for at least 14 days,” Trimble said. “Please ensure that you wash your hands after working with the infected horse, as some causes of colitis are zoonotic (like salmonella), meaning they are also infectious to humans.

“Owners also should continue to monitor the remainder of their herd daily for similar signs, place horses in a clean environment, and keep them away from horses who have diarrhea,” Trimble said. “To help prevent the spread of disease, the infected horse should have separate brushes, buckets, and tools, and its stall should be cleaned last.”

While biosecurity practices can help prevent infectious colitis from developing, there are additional strategies owners can implement to protect the overall gastrointestinal health of their horses, including gradual dietary changes and gut health support.

“We usually recommend making dietary changes for horses slowly, over a period of 14 days, to avoid upsetting their delicate microbiome,” Trimble said. “Horses need to have at least 50 percent of their diet be forage-based (grass and hay) for their hindgut health to be maintained. Some people elect to use a probiotic to maintain gut health and should generally look for a product that contains the probiotic saccharomyces.”

Owners also should monitor the horse’s environment for sand, especially around eating areas, since too much sand ingestion can cause impactions, or blockages in the gastrointestinal tract, leading to chronic cases of diarrhea. To protect horses from impactions, Trimble advises feeding them from a bucket off of the ground or using commercially available psyllium pellets designed to remove sand from the colon.

Routine care and veterinary guidance are necessary as well to benefit a horse’s overall health and reduce the chances of developing colitis.

“Horses should have a fecal parasitic egg count done at least once a year by a veterinarian so that, if necessary, they can develop appropriate deworming protocols for your horse and farm,” Trimble said. “You also should only use medications such as antibiotics and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs with the direction of a veterinarian to avoid overuse or complications.”

With supportive care, good biosecurity practices, and prevention strategies, owners can stay on guard against colitis and contribute to the health and happiness of their equine community.

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