Colic can be caused by a number of things, but sand colic is specifically the result of a horse ingesting sand or dirt to the point that it accumulates in the gastrointestinal tract.
You might think horses are only at risk if they live in sandy or desert regions, but this isn't the case. Horses who are fed hay on the ground or graze on short, sparse pasture may pick up enough sand or dirt over time to cause conditions of sand colic.
Signs of sand buildup
In regions of the country where sandy soil is common, it’s not unusual for horses to have some amount of sand in the intestinal tract.
Small amounts can pass through, but issues can develop when this sand builds up.
Depending on how much sand is ingested, it can accumulate in the horse’s ventral colon and cecum. Sand accumulation can result in:
- Chronic weight loss
- Irritation of the G.I. tract
- Sand colic due to irritation and/or obstruction
Identifying presence of sand
Veterinarians use multiple methods to determine if there’s sand in the horse's gastrointestinal tract. These may include:
- Auscultation (listening to internal sounds with a stethoscope)
- Radiographs (X-rays)
- Rectal palpation
- Fecal sand flotation
We see all of our patients twice a year for wellness exams. During those exams we use our stethoscopes to auscultate the ventral abdomen," says Christine Staten, DVM, a large animal veterinarian with Adobe Veterinary Center in Tucson, Arizona.
Sand moving in the horse's colon makes a specific sound, and a knowledgeable veterinarian can identify it by listening to the contractions of the colon with a stethoscope.
"Because we have listened to literally thousands of horses, we are able to hear sand if it is currently moving in the ventral abdomen," she notes. "If we hear that, we come up with a plan to get the sand out before it causes issues."
Regular wellness exams can help identify the presence of sand before the horse has an episode of sand colic. This is important because, as Staten points out, "Most horses that are actively colicking do not have a lot of G.I. motility and we are generally not able to hear the sand at that emergency appointment."
Although radiographs and ultrasound of the abdomen can be very effective at diagnosing sand accumulation, these methods are typically done in an equine hospital setting, which may not be convenient or readily available.
Rectal palpation is another way the veterinarian can recognize sand in the horse's G.I. tract.
"We perform rectal palpations on all of our colicky horses to help determine the cause of their discomfort, and sometimes we can actually feel a sand impaction in part of the G.I. tract," says Staten, who has been a veterinarian since 1999.
"We can also take feces directly from the rectum and put it in water," says Staten. "The sand is heavy, and it will sediment to the bottom of the water."
A fecal flotation test can be done using a large glass jar, a gallon-size zip-type plastic bag, or even a latex exam glove. Horse owners themselves can perform a fecal sand float. Turn a gallon-size zip-type plastic bag inside out over your hand and pick up half a dozen "apples" of fresh manure from the middle of the pile and that aren’t touching the ground. Invert the bag and add enough water to cover the manure. Seal the bag, shake it and place it upright on a flat surface.
After an hour or so, check to see if any sand has settled on the bottom of the bag. The presence of sand is a clear indication that there’s sand in your horse's digestive system. But if you don't see sand at the bottom of the bag, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the horse's G.I. tract is free of sand.
"It might actually be a bigger issue. Sand that accumulates in the colon and does not come out in the feces is on its way to a sand impaction," Staten observes. "That’s why it is very important to make sure that your veterinarian is checking your horse regularly."
Veterinary treatment of sand colic
"If we suspect or know that a horse’s colic is caused by a sand impaction, we generally give them IV fluid therapy to help them pass it," says Staten. "We also give them a lot of mineral oil directly into their stomach. Mineral oil is known to soothe the G.I. tract that is being scratched by the sand, and it may help get the sand out easier."
When sand colic is effectively treated by your veterinarian, you should still take steps to avoid future episodes by adjusting management practices and using a psyllium-based product, like SandClear™ Natural Psyllium Crumbles.
If large amounts of sand are present in the G.I. tract, routine treatment for sand colic may not be effective, and surgery may be necessary.
Take proactive steps
There are specific management practices horse owners can take to help prevent their horses from picking up sand/dirt when eating. These include:
- Never feeding hay on the ground
- Putting rubber mats under hay feeders and feed buckets
- Using "slow” feeders for hay or feed hay more often
- Turning out on grass when possible
- Not letting pastures be overgrazed
- 24/7 access to clean, cool water
- Consistent exercise program
- Regular use of a psyllium product
Many horse owners feed hay on the ground or on the floor of the stall, but this allows the horse to pick up dirt or sand that may be present. "Slow" feeders are ideal because they keep the horse from pulling out more than a mouthful of hay at a time, which helps keep hay off the ground. In addition to slowing down hay consumption, this type of feeder keeps the horse eating smaller amounts for longer periods, which encourages normal digestion and also helps alleviate boredom.
Consistent forage intake is a key component of maintaining a healthy gut. Feeding hay only twice a day is far from ideal as it leaves the horse's stomach empty for hours at a time.
Use of slow feeders or allowing the horse to graze on pasture provides more consistency in the digestive system. Eating hay over longer periods also encourages the horse to drink more water, which is another vital aspect of keeping the gut moving and functioning normally.
Some horses are messy eaters and regularly flip grain out on the ground. You can buy a feed tub with a rim to help prevent this, but your best option may be putting rubber mats under feeders and tubs — both in the stall and outside. Make it a point to sweep mats clean before every feeding.
Grazing is natural for the horse, and daily turnout on fresh grass can help horses clear accumulated sand.
If your horse is fortunate enough to be on pasture, good management practices should be followed. This means not overgrazing fields to the point that grass is so short that the horse pulls out entire plants by the root, thereby ingesting dirt or sand on the roots.
Exercise is helpful in the removal of sand. Horses who exercise regularly also tend to drink more water, which helps keep the digestive system working smoothly.
Benefits of psyllium
Even with careful management, horses do live outside and it's not always possible to completely prevent ingestion of sand or dirt. With this in mind, many veterinarians recommend regular use of a psyllium-based supplement designed for horses.
The thinking behind feeding psyllium is that it helps move sand out of the G.I. tract and hopefully prevent it from accumulating to a point that it can cause issues, such as sand colic.
Such products, are made withnaturally fibrous psyllium seed husks. Flavorings, such as apple or molasses, are often added. Psyllium can absorb large amounts of water, and once it enters the digestive tract it can increase in volume as much as five times or greater. By increasing bulk and softening stool, it can help support intestinal regularity and move sand out with the manure.
"In our practice, we absolutely see the positive effects of oral psyllium in our patients," says Staten, who adds that almost all of the horses requiring veterinary attention for sand colic were not on a psyllium program.
"In our area of southern Arizona, our sand is very heavy, as it is essentially crushed bedrock. The only method that I have seen effective in removing it regularly from a horse’s G.I. tract is having that horse on an oral psyllium plan," she adds. "Most of our patients are given psyllium seven days in a row once a month and that is very effective."
Follow label directions when using a psyllium supplement.