Sand Colic in Horses: Causes, Symptoms, and Prevention


Sand colic is a common condition in horses that occurs when they ingest sand, which accumulates in their digestive system. This can lead to blockages, irritation, and signs of colic, weight loss, and diarrhea. Horses can ingest sand while grazing or eating from sandy soil, and it can also happen when they ingest sand on their own, for reasons that are not entirely clear.

Symptoms of sand colic in horses can include pawing, lying down frequently, rolling, and reluctance to eat. In severe cases, surgery may be necessary to manually remove the sand, but there are also non-invasive treatments that can help prevent and clear accumulations. To prevent sand colic, it is important to ensure that horses have access to clean water and are not grazing on sandy soil. Providing hay in a feeder, trough, or on mats can also help minimize the amount of sand ingested.

Understanding Sand Colic

Sand colic is a common condition in horses that occurs when sand accumulates in the gastrointestinal tract, leading to blockage, irritation, inflammation, displacement, rupture, or other complications. It is a type of colic that affects the large colon and intestine, and it can cause severe abdominal pain, discomfort, and distress in horses.

The diagnosis of sand colic is based on clinical signs, such as abdominal pain, loss of appetite, weight loss, diarrhea, dehydration, and depression. A veterinarian may perform a physical examination, including rectal palpation, to detect sand accumulation in the intestine or colon.

The treatment of sand colic depends on the severity of the condition and the presence of complications. Mild cases may be treated with laxatives, such as mineral oil or psyllium, to help move the sand out of the intestine. In more severe cases, surgery may be necessary to remove the sand or repair any damage to the intestine or colon.

Prevention is key in managing sand colic in horses. Horse owners should provide clean and safe water sources, avoid feeding horses on sandy soil or hay, and use mats or feeders to minimize sand ingestion. Regular deworming and fecal testing can also help prevent sand colic by reducing the risk of intestinal parasites that can damage the intestinal lining and increase sand accumulation.

Risk Factors

Sandy soil, sandy areas, and overgrazed pastures are the primary sources of sand ingestion. Feeding horses on the ground or in sandy areas also increases the risk. Roots, rocks, and other debris in feed or forage can also increase the risk of sand colic. When horses consume feed or forage that contains sand, the sand can accumulate in the gut and cause blockages and irritation.

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Horses with poor digestion or that are prone to colic are also at a higher risk of specifically developing sand colic. Poor digestion can cause food to move slowly through the gut, allowing sand to accumulate. Additionally, horses that have previously experienced colic are at a higher risk of developing sand colic.

Preventing sand colic involves reducing the risk factors that can lead to sand ingestion. Feeding horses in a manger or hay net, providing clean water, and avoiding overgrazing pastures can help reduce the risk of sand colic. Additionally, feeding psyllium supplements can help move sand out of the gut and prevent blockages.

Symptoms and Clinical Signs

Sand colic in horses can be difficult to diagnose as the symptoms can be similar to other types of colic. However, there are some clinical signs that can indicate a horse is suffering from sand colic.

One of the most common symptoms of sand colic is abdominal pain. Horses may show signs of discomfort by pawing, rolling, or lying down frequently. They may also stretch out as if trying to defecate.

Weight loss is another symptom of sand colic. This is because sand can accumulate in the horse’s gut, causing a blockage that can prevent the absorption of nutrients.

Diarrhea is a unique symptom of sand colic and is caused by both the accumulation of sand resulting in a loss of nutrient absorption and the irritation of the horse’s intestinal lining.

Motility is often affected in horses with sand colic. The movement of the intestines can be slowed down or completely stopped due to the blockage caused by the sand.

In addition to abdominal pain, horses with sand colic may show signs of depression. They may have a decreased appetite and be less active than usual.

Fever is not a common symptom of sand colic, but it can occur in severe cases. If a horse has a fever, it is important to seek veterinary attention immediately.

Diagnosis and Tests

When a horse is showing signs of colic, it is important to call a veterinarian immediately. A veterinarian will perform a thorough physical examination, including auscultation with a stethoscope to listen to the horse’s gut sounds, and a rectal exam to check for impactions or other abnormalities in the horse’s intestinal tract.

In addition to the physical exam, a veterinarian may also recommend diagnostic tests to help determine the cause of the colic. One common test is a fecal sample analysis to check for the presence of sand or other foreign materials in the horse’s gut. A rectal sleeve can be used to collect a sample of the horse’s manure for testing.

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Abdominal radiography, also known as a “belly x-ray,” can also be used to diagnose sand colic. Radiographs can help identify the presence of sand or other foreign materials in the horse’s gut. An ultrasound exam may also be used to visualize the horse’s intestinal tract and identify any abnormalities.

Treatment Options

Sand colic in horses can range from mild to severe, and treatment options depend on the severity of the condition. Call a veterinarian right away if a horse shows any signs of colic, including pawing, rolling, sweating, or restlessness.

Most cases of sand colic respond to medical treatment alone, which consists of pain relievers, fluids to hydrate the horse, and laxatives such as psyllium to help move the sand out of the GI tract. Psyllium is a fiber supplement that absorbs water and forms a gel-like substance that helps to move the sand through the digestive system. It is often given daily for a week or two to prevent sand accumulation.

In more severe cases, surgery may be necessary to remove the sand from the horse’s gut. Surgery is usually reserved for horses that have a large amount of sand in their intestines or have developed an impaction. The surgery involves making an incision in the horse’s abdomen and manually removing the sand.

Another treatment option is the use of mineral oil, which can help to lubricate the sand and allow it to pass through the digestive system more easily. Magnesium sulfate, also known as Epsom salts, can also be used to help move the sand through the digestive system. Epsom salts work by increasing the osmotic pressure in the intestines, which helps to draw water into the digestive tract and soften the sand.

Prevention is always the best option, and there are several steps that horse owners can take to prevent sand colic. One of the most important steps is to avoid feeding horses on sandy soil.

Prevention and Management

Prevention is key when it comes to avoiding sand colic in horses. Horse owners should take steps to minimize the amount of sand their horses ingest. Horses grazing on sandy pastures should be rotated to other pastures, and the grass in their grazing area should be kept at a sufficient length to prevent them from ingesting sand along with the grass.

When feeding horses, it is essential to avoid placing hay or feed directly on the ground. Instead, use a feed rack or feeders to keep hay and grain off the dirt. Hay nets can also be hung up to prevent horses from ingesting sand along with their feed. Rubber mats can be placed in feeding areas to prevent sand from mixing with feed.

Horses should also have access to fresh water at all times. When watering horses, it is important to avoid placing the water source on sandy ground. A bucket or tub can be used to provide water to horses, and the water source should be kept away from manure or any fresh pile of manure.

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If a horse does ingest sand, there are steps that can be taken to manage the condition. One option is to use a psyllium supplement, derived from the Plantago ovata plant. Psyllium can help move sand through the horse’s digestive system, preventing impaction.

Frequently Asked Questions

What causes sand colic in horses?

Sand colic in horses is caused by the ingestion of sand, dirt, or other abrasive particles that accumulate in the horse’s gut over time. This can lead to obstructions and irritation of the GI tract lining, resulting in abdominal pain, weight loss, and other signs of colic.

How do you treat sand colic in horses?

If a horse shows signs of sand colic, it is important to contact a veterinarian immediately. Most cases of sand colic can be treated medically with pain relievers, fluids to hydrate the horse, and laxatives such as psyllium to help move the sand out of the GI tract. In more severe cases, surgery may be necessary.

How do you treat sand colic at home?

It is not recommended to treat sand colic at home without the guidance of a veterinarian. Ingesting sand can cause serious health problems for horses, and self-treatment can lead to further complications.

What are some supplements for sand colic in horses?

There are several supplements available that may help prevent sand colic in horses. Psyllium husk is a common supplement that can help move sand out of the GI tract. Other supplements include probiotics, digestive enzymes, and fiber sources such as beet pulp.

How does psyllium help with colic in horses?

Psyllium husk is a soluble fiber that absorbs water and swells in the gut, creating a gel-like substance that helps move sand out of the horse’s digestive system. It is often used as a preventative measure for sand colic in horses and can also be used as a treatment for mild cases of sand colic.


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