Educating Horse Owners: Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment of Colitis

By Emily Riden, Jump Media with Dr. Selina Watt

It’s no secret that in nearly any medical condition, early diagnosis can mean a better prognosis – and Colitis in horses is no exception. The inflammation of the colon that defines Colitis can be fatal, but fortunately, with the proper detection of symptoms, immediate treatment and monitoring, a positive outcome and full recovery far outweigh a negative ending.

Understanding what Colitis is, what symptoms can indicate illness, how it is diagnosed, and what treatment plans can help in avoiding or recognizing future problems. With that in mind, Palm Beach Equine Clinic’s Dr. Selina Watt has helped provide the basic information that horse owners and managers should know about Colitis in horses.

Understanding Colitis and Its Causes

Located in the horse’s hind gut is the large colon, where microbial digestion occurs. Also, where water and a large portion of the resulting nutrients are absorbed. When this large colon becomes inflamed, the horse is diagnosed with Colitis.

While the general definition of Colitis is simple and straightforward, the causes can be more broad. However, two of the most prevalent causes occur because of a bacterial infection or overuse of medication in a very specific type of colitis called Right Dorsal Colitis. The infectious, Bacterial Colitis is often caused by agents such as Salmonella, Clostridium difficile, or Neorickettsia risticii (Potomac Horse Fever); the non-infectious, Right Dorsal Colitis is often related to the use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as phenylbutazone (Bute).

No matter the cause, each form of Colitis leads to the similar inflammation of the large colon, which is where problems begin. The inflamed colon now causes the horse to have diarrhea, as the colon is unable to properly perform its job of absorbing the water and nutrients from the intestinal content.

As Colitis progresses, because of the leaky membranes of the colon, the horse can also begin to release toxins into their blood stream or lose protein from the blood into the colon; ultimately causing laminitis, founder or protein deficiencies, and a greater risk of complications or lack of a complete recovery.

Symptoms and Diagnostics

Proper detection makes the severe cases far less prevalent. The first and most conspicuous symptom of colitis is diarrhea. If the diarrhea persists, horses can also begin to show signs of dehydration or protein loss, due to the volume of fluids and nutrients excreted.

Upon noticing consistently unusual stool and diarrhea from the horse or other signs of lack of energy or appetite, it is recommended not to wait and see what develops, but rather to contact a knowledgeable veterinarian for proper diagnostics right away.

Once the horse is in the veterinarian’s hands, one of the first things that should be done is bloodwork. In the case of colitis, bloodwork will show decreased white blood cells and decreased protein levels – the severity of the results helps to indicate how advanced or severe the colitis may be. The horse will also generally present with an elevated temperature, and a diagnostic abdominal ultrasound will likely show thickening of the colon wall.

Following the initial diagnosis of colitis by Palm Beach Equine Clinic, a diarrhea sample is sent to a lab for analysis and testing for numerous types of bacteria to aid in determining whether the colitis case is infectious or non-infectious. Non-infectious cases can also be diagnosed based on the horse’s history, such as if the horse has been administered Bute for a prolonged period of time.

Treatment and Prognosis

Horses affected by Colitis generally require hospital admittance, as they will need to be managed with IV fluids, as well as gastro protectants to aid the colon wall. Treatment is started immediately following the initial diagnosis, but should the Colitis be determined infectious, the patient will also need to go on antibiotics to treat the infection. If the bloodwork indicates low protein values, due to the lack of absorption and the protein loss through the diarrhea, plasma therapy is a necessary treatment in addition to the implemented IV fluid therapy.

At Palm Beach Equine Clinic, the intensive care management team includes a veterinarian on-call and hospital staff present 24 hours a day, seven days a week, which can be necessary when battling colitis. Horses with colitis cannot be simply hooked up to fluids and left to improve, instead they generally require careful monitoring around the clock. If the primary veterinarian at Palm Beach Equine feels the case is severe, the horse will be closely monitored round the clock, in which a veterinary technician would perform requested evaluations and assessments each hour. This can be of the utmost importance, as colitis cases can often decline rapidly without proper veterinary monitoring.

Utilizing medications cautiously and with a veterinarian consent can help decrease the risk of non-infectious Colitis. Additionally, the use of a probiotic may aid in the overall health of the hind gut and the large colon. However, unfortunately there is no foolproof prevention plan for Colitis.

With early detection, diagnosis, and proper treatment, equine colitis patients present a positive prognosis. To ensure the health of your horse, the veterinary team at Palm Beach Equine Clinic is available 24/7. Horse caregivers are encouraged to contact the clinic at the first sign of a problem or suspicion.

 Article courtesy of Jump Media

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