Horse owners in Australia need to be aware of a condition called sand colic. When horses eat grain or hay off the ground or graze in pastures that have sandy soil, they have the tendency to ingest significant amounts of that sand. The sand will need to travel through the digestive tract, and quite often it will accumulate and consequently cause irritation within the digestive system.


What are the signs of sand colic?

Sand colic may cause a range of symptoms. Chronic sand build-up could lead to difficulty maintaining weight, diarrhoea or illthrift. Severe or acute build-up can lead to colic symptoms, gut obstruction and gas build-up proximal to the obstruction. These symptoms are not specific to the condition so a qualified vet may need to perform tests to identify if sand accumulation is the culprit. Here are the common tests:

Faecal flotation test – An amount of the horse’s faeces is collected and added to a container of water (a bucket, jar or plastic glove). The faeces are mixed with the water and the sand allowed to settle in the bottom of the container, and in this form it can be measured. While this test may show that the horse has ingested some sand, it has no way of indicating how much sand could still be accumulated inside the horse’s body.

Listening for sand in the colon – A stethoscope will be used to listen to contractions within the colon; there actually are specific sounds that will tell the vet that there is an amount of sand within the horse’s colon.

Rectal palpation – The veterinarian may pass their arm through the rectum and palpate the colon (the most common site for sand build-up) through the rectal wall. Although they may not specifically be able to feel the sand certain characteristics when palpating the colon may lead to the veterinarian to suspect sand build-up in the colon.

Equine abdominal radiographs – This procedure is not commonly performed in general practice as large amounts of radiation are required to x-ray a horse’s abdomen, however it is possible to x-ray a horses abdomen and identify large amounts of sand in the colon.

Exploratory abdominal surgery – For colic that is not responsive to medical treatment or recurrent colic abdominal surgery may be performed. If large amounts of sand are found in the colon and incision may be made in the colon and the sand washed out using large volumes of water.


What can be done to keep the horse from ingesting any more sand?

The best thing to do to prevent sand colic in horses is to control the way the animal is fed and housed.

  •  Only provide hay or grain in feeders. If possible, place mats all over the feeding area. Hay bags, nets or pillows are suitable for feeding providing they are appropriately secured so the horse cannot catch their legs or heads in them. If the horse must feed outside, place mats over areas where it can get access to sandy soil or feed hay out of large tubs.
  •  Avoid overgrazing pasture. Once the grass becomes very short horses will continue to nibble at it and may pick up sand and other debris as they fossick for grass. At times when the grass is short supplementary hay should be provided in suitable feeders.
  •  Feeding a horse psyllium fibre is also another strategy that horse owners and vets have been known to try. The fibre will cause the horse to expel much of the sand through the faeces. It is best to consult your local large animal specialists and vet hospital staff about the right dosage and frequency of consuming psyllium fibre to meet the horse’s specific needs.
  •  Administration of oil via a nasogastric (stomach) tube by your vet at high risk times may reduce sand build-up in the intestines
  •  Ensure fresh water is available to horses at all times
  •  If you are designing a property layout there are designs available that may reduce wear and tear on the pasture to reduce the risk periods where grass is short. (an example of such a plan is found in Managing Horses on Small Properties, Jane Myers, Landlinks Press, 2005)

What is the treatment for sand colic?

Most cases of sand colic are treated with pain relief as needed to control colic symptoms and fluid administration orally (often via nasogastric tube) and/or via a catheter placed in the horses vein. Severe impactions may require surgery.

Contact our 24 Hour Emergency Service on 02 4362 1644 if you are concerned your horse may have colic.