Sand impaction

With the dry months we have experienced, we have seen some horses with colic caused by sand impaction.

Many paddocks are dry and grass is sparse. When eating the remaining bits of grass, or while eating from the soil, horses can ingest large amounts of sand. The sand slowly accumulates, usually in the large intestine, and creates an impaction.

Many horses will not show clinical symptoms until the accumulation of sand becomes heavy and/or obstructs the intestine. They then present with colic symptoms (pawing, rolling and flank watching).

Most cases are managed medically with oral laxative treatment that softens the large intestine’s content and breaks down the impaction. However, it can become very painful for some horses and their colon can be clinically compromised, requiring surgical intervention to empty the impacted colon.

The presence of sand in the large intestine causes irritation of the mucosa and can also lead to severe diarrhea, weight loss, or peritonitis (an inflammation of the tissue covering the abdominal organs and abdominal walls). Sometimes these conditions can become life-threatening.

While sand impaction can be diagnosed by your veterinarian, there is a simple way for you to identify sand in your horse’s feces:

  • Pick a fecal ball and break it open and feel if you can detect sand between your fingers
    Do a sand sedimentation test by placing a couple fecal balls in a transparent plastic bag or glove, fill with water and mix. Leave it hanging for a few minutes. If present, sand will accumulate at the bottom of the bag or glove (as pictured).
  • Not identifying sand using these techniques does not mean that there is no sand accumulating in your horse’s intestine, as they do not always expel it.
  • Prevention remains the best way to avoid sand impaction and its complications:
    Avoid feeding your horse off the ground and use hay nets or elevated feeders
    Provide access to grassy paddocks as much as possible or if grass is sparse, feed enough hay
    Ensure your horse has continuous access to fresh and clean water
    Add psyllium husks (up to 1g/kg bodyweight) to the feed if you suspect your horse is ingesting sand. Psyllium will agglutinate (form a mass) the sand and stimulate the intestinal motility in order to make it pass through.
  • Please do not hesitate to contact the clinic if you think your horse is suffering from any form of colic.