Common diseases and disorders of horses and how to avoid them

by M.D. Creekmore on October 25, 2012 · 4 comments

This guest post is by Victoria S and entry in our non-fiction writing contest .

This is the last post in this series of articles on horses!

The two big health issues facing horses owners, and the ones that cause them to have nightmares, are colic and founder. These two conditions aren’t really diseases as they are really symptoms of something else and can be caused by a number of different diseases or situations.

Colic is simply abdominal pain in a horse. Usually, this involves the gastrointestinal tract – but other locations are possible. The severe forms of colic can result in death of the horse from the twisting of the intestines. There are a LOT of different causes of colic – including from parasites, from bad food or water, from too quick changes of feeds or feeding schedules, too much work, weather changes, or some diseases. The signs of colic are: sudden sweating, the horse looking at its belly often, a distended abdomen, either a lack of gut sounds which are present in a healthy horse or an increased amount of gut sounds (the sounds of digestion), violent rolling that doesn’t stop (its hard for the non-horseman to judge what’s violent – but continual rolling over the course of 5 or more minutes is a good sign of distress), lack of eating and drinking, and constipation.

Colic can manifest in simple intestinal pain – which the horse will often try to relieve by rolling, which can result in the horse twisting their intestines. A twisted intestine is generally only fixable with surgery, once it’s reached the point of actually being tied into knots. Colic can also result in impaction of the bowels, which will often result in the horse rolling violently and twisting their intestines.

The incidence of colic in domestic horses has been estimated at as much as 10 to 11 percent per year. Many incidences of colic don’t progress to the stage of rolling, so may pass unnoticed by the horseowner. The classic treatment for colic is to walk the horse, preventing it from rolling, while pumping oil into the stomach through a nasal tube to help soothe the intestines and ease any impaction.

Generally, you should not try to treat colic yourself. Call a vet, if at all possible. Obviously, this will not always be possible, and if it’s not, the best course of action is to walk walk walk the horse. Force feeding mineral oil can help, but the fastest way to make the oil take effect is to tube it down the nose.

Prevention is best handled by proper care – parasite control and proper feeding and working conditions.

Founder is the inflammation of the laminae, or the tissues between the horse’s hoof and the rest of the foot. The usual cause is either overeating rich foods, such as grain or new grass, or some sort of disease. Another cause is drinking water while the horse is overheated from work. Occasionally some broodmares will experience founder after giving birth.

The signs of founder are a high temperature (the regular temp for horses is 100.5 degrees F measured rectally) of 103 to 106 degrees, a refusal to walk or painful gait while walking, and in extreme cases, the warping of the hoof itself.

The main problem with founder isn’t death, although it does happen, but the impact on the usefulness of the horse – founder can be degenerative and cause the horse to be unable to be ridden or worked.

Like colic, this is best treated by a vet, but cold water soaking of the affected hooves will often help. Prevention is best handled by never allowing a horse to drink while hot and sweaty, preventing a horse from overeating rich foods, and making sure a just-foaled mare expels her afterbirth promptly after foaling (within 12 hours).

There are a number of other diseases and conditions of horses – but the main condition that would be seen in a SHTF situation would be azoturia – or tying up disease. This is a condition resulting from sudden exercise following a day or two of rest on full feed. Basically, it’s a symptom of too much lactic acid in the horse’s muscles. The signs are sweating, wine colored urine, stiff movements and a reluctance to move, and lameness. The treatment is rest and quiet with application of hot packs to the affected muscles that are stiff. The best prevention is to avoid uneven patterns of work and rest. Its better to keep a constant pace of work over weeks than to work a horse hard then give him one day off on full feed.

Another common health issue with horses is wounds. Put simply, horses are accident prone – they are always getting small cuts and injuries on their bodies. One important consideration with horses is that it is very difficult for them to bleed to death from a wound. You must basically cut their throat to cause death from bleeding. The usual methods of treating wounds in humans will hold true for horses – sutures, keeping the wound clean, etc etc. Just be aware that suturing a horse is a bit more difficult than suturing a human. You can often get away with not using stitches on horses for wounds that would get stitches in humans. It’s just difficult to keep the wound clean, especially for wounds on a horse’s body, as it’s impossible to easily bandage a horse’s belly. Luckily, leg wounds are much more common than belly wounds.

Horses are also subject to a number of infections diseases, of which the common are Encephalomyelitis, Equine influenza, Potomac horse fever, Rabies, Strangles, Tetnus, and Viral rhinopneumonitis. The treatment of all of those diseases is really beyond the scope of this article – most are best handled by a vet if possible. Most of them have in common a fever as one of the main symptoms, and almost all have vaccines available.

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4 comments

Schatzie Ohio October 25, 2012 at 9:24 pm

I enjoyed your series. I have had horses in the past but where I live now I don’t have the room for them. Good job on the write up!

Patti October 28, 2012 at 4:22 pm

Very interesting post, thank you!

T-Dawg October 28, 2012 at 11:13 pm

Great post, very informative. We love our horses. I will usually give them a small sip of water (about a quart) after a trail ride and a cool down period of about twenty minutes to help them wash the dust out. Maybe this is a mistake? I think horses are a great addition to a persons lifestyle as well as important “tools” in a survival situation. Thanks again for the posts.

faultroy November 10, 2012 at 1:40 pm

This was an excellent write up of what we know of standard literature on this subject, but let me add a couple of thoughts as a long time horseman.
1) While all of the information mentoned on founder and colic is accurate, we really don’t know if it is completely true. The truth is that we really don’t have a handle on the intricacies of founder, and colic is also confusing as well but slightly better understood. And, as someone that has studied the hoof extensively, it should be noted that verterinary farriers are divided on the particulars of what causes founder and how to aleve its specific symptoms. The problem is that not all remedies work in all situations. And one horse will respond favorably to an intervention that many specialists consider ineffective. But, as I write this, there is universal acceptance that feed is one of the prime culprits followed with feeding schedules. To our knowledge, wild horses do not appear to colic and there are no known instances of wild mustangs having had founder (we say this based on actual examinations of tens of thousands of wild mustangs captured by the BLM for their adoption program and founder leaves tell tale signs on the hoof for the life of the animal similar to scars on humans).
So, the two things that all vets specializing in the equine recommend is to keep your horses on the slim side (2) give a 24/7 feeding schedule with no grain and access to water and a low protein hay at all times. In other words, keep a horse’s lifestyle as close to completely natural as possible. This means to keep them moving, and giving them moderate exercise and allowing them turnout to mimic their natural lifestyle.
Personally, I believe our current breeding practices and breed specializaton also plays some role, but we really don’t know how much. (I should also state that there are no studies to support my comment–it is strictly a personal belief based on my personal experience). For example, the breeding of quarter horses with tiny feet (hooves) in proportion to their body mass is what I am referring to. Also the alarming trend of Thoroughbreds to have broken limbs on race tracks is another empirical example of what I am referring to. There is widespread belief that we actually bred their propensity for breaking down into their genes.
I remember that 35 years ago, the idea of an Arabian horse having bad feet was laughable–it was unheard of. Today, it is quite common. Why? It makes no sense.

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