Holistic Management of Acute Conditions
by Madalyn Ward, DVM
Even with the best holistic care, there will still be occasions when health issues arise. These instances usually involve exposure to infectious diseases, injuries and mild digestive upsets. Just about everything else falls into the chronic disease category which we will discuss later.
The most likely exposure here is too respiratory infections from a viral or bacterial cause. I do not feel we have good vaccines to prevent these infections with the exception of the new intranasal flu vaccine. This vaccine actually stimulates the correct type of immunity because it is administered in the same way natural infection occurs. Even with this said, your best defense is to build and support the immune system.
If you horse does come down with flu like symptoms, don’t panic. Make notes about his vital signs such as temperature, pulse, respiration and capillary refill time. Keep him in a quiet place and don’t stress him. To support his immune system and stimulate his appetite start giving him probiotics. If he is not eating at all you can dissolve 5 to 10 capsules of the Simplexity acidophilus in water and give it along with a tsp. of animal algae. Don’t worry about a fever up to 104 or even 105 if horse’s vital signs are good. Only if your horse is severely depressed or the fever has persisted for several days do you want to give medications to lower it. Fever is the body’s way of making it hard for infective agents to live and reproduce. Also do not worry if your horse backs off his feed. Fasting allows the body to focus energy on the immune response. Giving a nutrient dense food such as blue green algae provides support to the immune system without requiring energy for digestion. You want to make sure your horse is drinking because fever can lead to dehydration. Warm bran mashes with moist treats like apples and carrots can encourage water comsumption.
Antioxidants such as vitamin C or Noni juice can be very helpful in healing the inflammation created by the infection. Natural immune stimulants such as Echinacea, Beta Glucan, and colostrums can be used as well. Homeopathy can be very good for acute infections. It is important to look at your horses symptoms and carefully select the best remedy. For instance a dry hacking cough would be a different remedy than a moist one.
If your horse has contracted a streptococcal bacterial infection you may have to deal with abscesses in the lymphatic glands. Warm compresses and drawing agents such as Epsom salts can speed the maturation and draining of the abscess. Never attempt to open an abscess unless you can see a clear area where the tissue has thinned. Lancing an abscess before it has matured can slow the healing process and cause your horse unnecessary discomfort. Consider consulting with a homeopathic veterinarian if your horse does not seem to be recovering well. Echinacea is very good to fight the bacteria without slowing the immune response. Some of these cases can be stubborn and antibiotics should always be your last resort. Antibiotics will slow the maturation of abscesses and in some cases lead to internal abscessed which can be life threatening.
This is the most common form of colic I see in horses. It can usually be resolved if treated early, but can become life threatening if poorly managed. To understand why horses are so prone to impaction colic one only needs to look at the anatomy of their digestive tract. The large colon of the horse measures 3 - 4 meters long with an average volume of 80 liters. It lays in the abdomen in the shape of a double U by running forward from the right side (right ventral colon), bending double at the diaphragm and continuing back on the left side (left ventral colon). At the pelvis it makes another U turn and goes forward again (left dorsal colon) then bends again at the diaphragm to go down the right side (right dorsal colon). As if all of this bending around wasn’t enough at the pelvic flexure, the left dorsal colon becomes much narrower. It is no surprise that this area is the most common site of impactions. The small colon, also called the descending colon, reaches a length of up to 4 meters and is located mostly on the left side of the abdomen. It is narrow and another common site of impaction.
Horses with uncomplicated impaction colic are usually not in severe pain. They may refuse food and water, look around at their sides, paw the ground, and lay down. They may have intermittent cramping but are rarely in sustained, severe discomfort. Mild dehydration may show up as dry gums and skin that is less flexible. Impactions usually develop over several hours or days so it is important to check the stall for manure. If there has been no manure in over 12 hours it may indicate a more advanced case. This is important because some horses have a high pain tolerance and won’t exhibit discomfort until the impaction is well established. Also, horses with this kind of colic may cut back on their water consumption. This should be an early warning sign even if the horse appears fine otherwise.
Even if symptoms are mild it is still a good idea to notify your veterinarian. Most impactions do not require immediate attention, but if your horse does not respond to your first aid it is good to get on your vet’s schedule. After noting vital signs such as pulse, temperature, respiration, gum color, gut motility, and degree of pain take your horse out for a short 5 -10 minute walk. Sometimes this is all it takes for a stalled horse to get a mild impaction moving. TTeam™ body work, ear work and belly lifts may help relax your horse. The homeopathic remedy nux vomica will often help increase intestinal motility. I use a 6c potency given once every 10 minutes for up to 4 doses. If your horse seems to be having some cramping you can alternate nux vomica and chamomile 30c. Probiotics such as Fastrack™ paste or acidophilus will increase motility by replenishing beneficial bacteria in the gut. I give 10 cc of the Fastrack™ non- ruminant paste or 5 -10 of the Simplexity acidophilus Capsules. If these measures do not bring relief to your horse within 1 hour it is a good idea to proceed to conventional veterinary treatment. Mineral oil and oral electrolytes are my first line treatments for impaction colic. After a physical exam a stomach tube is passed to remove any gas from the stomach and administer the medications. The mineral oil will lubricate the impaction and the oral electrolytes will correct mild dehydration. If pain is not relieved by removing gas off the stomach then an anti-inflammatory agent such as Banamine™ of Ketophin™ can be given. Removing the gas off the stomach is critical before giving any pain reliever. Most horses cannot burp so covering up pain from a distended stomach could lead to serious consequences. Once a horse has received a pain killer he should be observed for at least 5 hours to make sure the drug is out of his system and he is still pain free. Grain and hay should be withheld until oil is passing in the manure. This usually takes 12 -24 hours. Bran mashes and grass can be offered, in moderation, if your horse is hungry. If your horse is not drinking consider adding 1 tsp of Lite™ salt to the bran mash. Nux vomica 30c can be given twice a day to encourage your horse to drink following impaction colic. Acupuncture can also be valuable for a stubborn case. I use acupuncture when the horse does not respond within a few hours to conventional treatment. If gut motility does not return your horse may still be dehydrated. If oral fluids are not enough intravenous fluids may be required. Do not hesitate to go this route if your veterinarian recommends it.
Exercise and good dental care are the best preventions for impaction colic. Also fresh clean water available at all times. My rule is if your horse doesn’t drink he doesn’t get to eat. In other words, if you see a decrease in water consumption immediately increase the exercise and decrease the food. Give probiotics and a bran mash to avoid problems. The same rule holds if you see a decline in the amount of manure being passed. A good deworming schedule is also important. Some horses prone to impaction colic will do better on alfalfa or a grass/alfalfa mix hay.
Spasmodic and Gas Colic
I am discussing these two types of colic together because they have similar causes and presenting symptoms. Improper digestion from various causes is responsible for these colics. Stress from nervousness, weather changes, feed changes, and overwork can result in spasmodic or gas colic. To explain why the horse is so sensitive we must again look at the anatomy and physiology of the digestive tract. The horse is designed to graze continually throughout the day and to eat mostly roughage such as grass. Because fiber is digested in the lower intestine or colon this organ has capacity to hold lots of food. In contrast, the stomach which under natural conditions would rarely hold much food is very small. The maximum capacity of the stomach of the average horse is only 2-3 gallons. The small intestine is 75 ft long but only about 2-3 inches in diameter. Because most horses can not vomit or burp they develop problems quickly if food does not move to the large intestine before fermentation begins. Digestion of starches and fats occurs in the stomach and small intestine.
Impaction colics generally come on slowly with low level discomfort but the opposite is the case with spasmodic and gas colic. Your horse can act normal one minute then become very painful. These horses often lay down and roll violently with little regard for their safety or that of handlers. They may sweat and breathe very rapidly. The pulse and gum color are generally normal in uncomplicated cases. The manure may be loose and in the case of gas colic your horse will appear bloated. With spasmodic colic your horse may seem to relax then become painful for a few minutes then relax again. These colics often occur around or shortly after feeding.
The main plan is to get your horse to relax and begin digesting properly. These colics can often resolve as quickly as they appear if you act promptly. Carefully, halter your horse and get him into a safe area where you can walk him around. This will often settle him down and give you time to examine him. If his gum color is abnormal ( anything other than pink ) , his pulse is over 40 or he looks bloated call your vet immediately. If the walking seems to relax him you can give a dose of probiotics to stimulate his digestion. You can also give the homeopathic remedy chamomile 30c orally every 5 -10 minutes for 4 doses. This should help calm the spasms and help your horse relax more. Neither of these treatments will mask any symptoms. If your horse is still uncomfortable after 20 - 30 minutes call your vet and get on the schedule. The colic may still resolve on its own but it is better to be safe. Your vet will probably want to administer a mild sedative and painkiller and pass a stomach tube. This is a good idea to remove any gas or fluid from the stomach. Fluid reflux from the stomach can indicate a more serious indigestion or inflammation. Mineral oil is often given to prevent gas formation. Oral electrolytes may or may not be needed. Dehydration is not as often a problem in these colics as it is in impactions and it is important not to overload an already full stomach. Once the pain is relieved it is best to put your horse into an environment where he will be most relaxed. If your horse is still suffering from excess gas you can give the homeopathic remedy, colchicum 30c every 5 -10 minutes for 4 doses. If your horse is comfortable and passing manure you can offer a small amount of hay or grass as soon as the pain medication wears off. Try to determine the cause of the colic and change your management if possible.
It is important to maintain horses in as natural an environment as possible. If you can’t offer them access to pasture at least give them plenty of grass hay to munch on. Keep the grain meals small (no more than 2 gallons at a time ) and divide your grain feedings into more frequent feedings if your horse is a hard keeper. You can also increase the fat in the diet or add alfalfa hay to help your horse gain or maintain weight without increasing the grain. Check your horse for internal parasites and have his teeth examined at least once a year. Regular exercise is important but be careful not to feed or water your horse if he is overheated. Your horse can overheat standing in his pen or stall on a very hot day so delay the grain portion of the diet until the sun goes down and the temperature drops. If this is not possible consider giving only a small portion of the grain or a bran mash. If your horse is under stress which you can not control feed him probiotics on a daily basis. This is especially useful for horses in training or brood mares due to foal. Fastrack™ powder 1 TBS. twice a day is my favorite. Also consider a dose of probiotics as a preventative if you suspect your horse will be stressed such as at a horse show or when being shipped.
Bruises or hematomas are probably the most common horse injury. Kicks from other horses are the usual cause. Hematomas are formed from ruptures blood vessels under the skin. The blood accumulates in pockets and will present as a soft fluid filled swelling. The first thing to do in confine your horse so he does not move around and cause additional bleeding into the tissue. Resist the temptation to give anti-inflammatory drugs such as Banamine or Bute as these drugs have an anticoagulant effect. Cold water hosing or ice packs will do more to stop the bleeding and associated pain.
Give the homeopathic remedy, Arnica, as soon as possible. Ideally you should give 1 or 2 doses of a higher 1m or 10m. When I was practicing strictly conventional medicine I would always drain the serum off these hematomas after about 10 days. I have not had to do this once in the 10 years since I have been using the Arnica. With the Arnica, I find the blood tends to form a clot faster and the resulting serum is reabsorbed back into the body at a faster rate.
You should keep your horse quite for about 10 days and then your should be able to resume exercise. If at any time the hematoma looks larger repeat the Arnica. It is not uncommon to have a hard swelling remain in the area of the injury. After all the serum has reabsorbed it is safe to apply medications to stimulate circulation into the area, such as DMSO or an herbal liniment such as formula 11 or Sore no More. This will help the body break down the scar tissue remaining from the injury.
Minor cuts and abrasions are common especially on the lower legs of horses. After hosing and cleaning the dirt off I like to wrap these wounds with a cotton bandage soaked in Draw solution mixed in a 50/50 dilution then apply a standing bandage. I avoid soaps and antiseptics unless the wound is severely contaminated. The Draw solution keeps the swelling down and helps with soreness. The bandage supports the tissues in the lower legs to keep down the swelling. This bandage should be changed once or twice a day for several days. After the initial inflammation has subsided the bandaging can be discontinued and the Draw solution can be sprayed on the leg several times a day as needed to keep down swelling and promote healing. Arnica can be used in these cases but it will often not have as dramatic an effect as it does with injuries to the muscles. I will use it if there is lameness.
Stone bruises occur in horses. They are more common in horses who are kept in stalls and are not ridden regularly on rough ground. Stone bruises can also occur in pastured horses when the weather has been wet for a long time then turns dry. The horses sole may not be able to develop a callus fast enough on the sole to withstand the dry rough ground. Arnica given internally can help with the pain and helps the serum to be reabsorbed so the bruise is less likely to turn into an abscess. Arnica or Hypericum tincture can also be applied topically. I dilute 10 drops of tincture in 1 ounce of water and apply it under a bandage. I use Hypericum for very painful bruises and Arnica if the horse is just a little sore. Soaking in a hot Epson salt solution can draw the soreness out of bruised hooves. Durasole or a similar sole toughening product can be applied several times a week to dry the sole out in wet weather. Be careful not to get these products on the frog or skin.
Hoof abscess can occur after deep bruises or following puncture wounds. A drawing product such as icthammol can be applied under bandage to encourage the abscess to come to the surface. A clay poultice is also a good idea if the hoof is dry and hard. The poultice will soften the hoof wall and relieve pain by allowing the hoof capsule to swell. It is not a good idea to leave the poultice on for more than 24 hours. Hoof testers can be used to locate the abscess and a farrier or veterinarian can use a hoof knife to open up an area to allow for easier drainage. It is best to remove only as much hoof as needed because removing too much allows tissue to prolapse and this can delay healing. Once the abscess has been opened the foot can be soaked daily in Epson salt solution to draw out the infection and allow healing from the inside out. Some horses are reluctant to put their feet in buckets so I will put about 1 TBS of Epson salts in a diaper, add about 1/2 cup water and bandage this on the foot. I then cover it with some kind of plastic bag like a heavy duty freezer bag and cover this with Vetwrap and duct tape. This wrap can be replaced every 12 to 24 hrs until the bandage consistently comes off clean. Then a dry bandage can be used until the abscess is healed. I do not use antibiotics fro hoof abscesses unless joints or bursas are involved. The very fact an abscess has formed suggests the body has walled off the problem and systemic antibiotics just weaken the immune response. I also avoid anti inflammatory drugs as the inflammation is part of the healing process. Stopping the inflammation will slow the maturation of the abscess and end up prolonging the time it takes to open and drain. Immune support products such as Transfer Factors or Immusun can be used. Homeopathy can be used but one must determine which one best fits the case. Abscesses which are extremely painful may respond to hepar sulph. Localized less painful abscesses often do well with silica and deep diffuse abscesses may require sulphur.
Resources for Injuries and Acute Conditions on Holistic Horsekeeping
The Holistic Approach: Combining with Western Way of Thinking with Madalyn Ward, DVM
Holistic Approach to Acute and Chronic Disease with Madalyn Ward, DVM
Dealing with Acute Conditions (Colic) with Madalyn Ward, DVM and Cecilia Adamson
Spasmodic and Gas Colic
Homeopathy and First Aid for Horses
The Power of Observation: How to Monitor the Critically Ill Horse
Case Study: Anhydrosis
Buck Mountain Botanicals
Simplexity Products (formerly Cell Tech)
Holistic Horsekeeping Ebook
Holistic Horsekeeping Book (More details than Ebook)
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