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Colic Basics: Sand Colic, Signs and Remedies

Colic is the most common medical ailment in the horse. Over the past 25 years there have been great strides in both the prevention and treatment of equine colic. Improvements in deworming products and schedules, equine dentistry, and management practices have helped to reduce the number of cases. Advances in veterinary knowledge and the development of new drugs and surgical techniques have helped to improve the survival rate for horses suffering with colic. Still today, each year 10-11% of the horse population suffers from this disease. One of the causes of this illness, sand ingestion, can be a substantial risk to certain horses.

Horses ingest sand either through grazing or eating hay or grain from the ground. The problem is most prevalent in the semi- arid west and southwestern states and the coastal states, although it can be a problem in any state. Soil or “dirt” consists of a certain amount of sand, which is a naturally occurring finely divided rock. In fact, many soils not only contain sand, but also contain silt which is an even finer particle of rock and some contain gravel which are the rock particles that are larger than sand. The silt, sand and gravel ingested must travel through the digestive system of the horse to be removed within the feces.
One of the problems associated with this situation is that the sand and gravel and to a lesser degree the silt can produce irritation within the digestive system. Additionally, in certain situations the sand can accumulate within the digestive system and the irritation can intensify due to this accumulation. As sand accumulates in the intestinal tract a combination of the irritant effects and the weight of the sand can lead to impaired motility, reduced absorption of nutrients including water and thus, digestive upset. If the accumulation of sand continues the resultant digestive upset will eventually lead to poor condition, diarrhea and eventually colic. Even more troubling is that clearance of the sand from the large colon, where most sand accumulates, requires adequate gastrointestinal motility. So once the sand begins to collect in the colon any resulting reduction in motility will further add to the horse’s accumulation of sand and gravel.

The signs of sand accumulation can include poor condition, difficulty in maintaining weight, diarrhea and colic. Since none of these conditions are unique to a sand accumulation problem the owner seeing any or all of these signs cannot assume that the cause is sand.

It is recommend that if your horse is exposed to eating sand or dirt that the first step is to control the consumption through management changes. These changes include, feeding, both grain and hay, only out of feeders, feeding off the ground and using mats in the feeding area. These steps will all help to control the sand intake. When feeding outside in a dry lot or a sparsely vegetated pen or pasture, covering a large area with mats, will help control both the eating area and the surrounding area where the horse is likely to browse for every last morsel of hay. These control measures will help in many cases, yet there are situations in which it is either hard or impossible to control the consumption of sand including herd pasture management, dry-land pasture grazing, and various other housing arrangements.

For horses that do consume some quantity of sand if complete control of sand intake is not possible, sand removal treatment with psyllium is a viable option. Historically there have been four problems with most psyllium treatments, not enough psyllium within the product administered, not enough product administered at each dosing, not a long enough or regular enough treatment period and the lack of clearance due to altered colonic motility. There is a new, pelleted psyllium product that has just become available, called Assure Plus, and this product works to overcome the common shortcomings of prior psyllium protocols. The investment in management changes and psyllium treatment can result in a healthier and less colic prone horse.


Read the next horse health tips article on Colic Causes.
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