What Are the Signs That My Horse Has a Twisted Gut?

By Lydia Janssen

A twisted gut, a painful condition for a horse, typically causes rapid heart rate and breathing, red or grayish gums, distended abdomen, a lack of gut sounds and responses to pain such as rolling or biting at the abdomen. Twisted gut in horses is a serious condition that requires immediate veterinary care -- it almost always requires surgery and is usually fatal without treatment.

Colic and Torsion in Horses

The term colic in horses simply means abdominal pain, which can be caused by factors including gas, impacted intestines, injury, illness and torsion. Torsion or twisting of the gut in horses, also known as a volvulus, can occur in the large intestine or small intestine and is one of the more serious causes of colic.

A partial torsion may limit blood supply and slow digestion, leading to impaction of the intestine. A twist of 360 degrees or more will cut off blood supply entirely and will result in intestinal death without rapid surgery.

Small Intestine Volvulus

A volvulus in the small intestine is typically acutely painful for the horse. The intestine may twist along the mesentery, a particularly long segment of the small intestine, or a portion of it may fall through the space made by the abdominal wall, the liver and the vena cava, gradually pulling in more intestine and blocking blood supply.

Symptoms of a small intestine volvulus may include rapid heart rate, dehydration and slow capillary refill. The horse may paw, bite at his stomach, try to lie down, or roll in response to the pain.

Large Intestine Volvulus

The large intestine of a horse is split into four quadrants. The left quadrants are not attached to the abdominal wall, allowing them freedom to turn and twist. The condition may cause only mild to moderate pain in the beginning, but in most cases the symptoms will rapidly become more severe.

Symptoms may include a rapid heart rate, fever, rapid breathing, bright red or grayish-blue gums, lack of response to pain medication and a distended, bloated abdomen. You may also notice a lack of gut sounds that typically accompany digestion.

Diagnosing a Twisted Gut

Depending on the severity of the torsion, your veterinarian may be able to feel the distended large or small intestine through the abdomen or the rectum. Your veterinarian may also perform an ultrasound to examine the intestines more directly.

An abdominal tap, a sample of fluid from near the intestines, may reveal a high white blood cell count due to infection. A blood test may also reveal a high level of toxins into the body as the intestine begins to die.

If a horse is in extreme pain or does not respond to painkillers after being treated three times in two hours, exploratory surgery may be warranted, since time is crucial to the horse's survival.

Causes of Twisted Gut

A number of conditions may cause a horse's intestines to twist. Horses who feed in sandy conditions may have sand buildup in the intestines, which can cause the intestines to turn. A gassy intestine, whether from diet, parasites or obstruction, can cause the intestine to raise in the abdomen and twist on itself.

Certain tumors in the abdomen may be connected to the intestines and other structures in the abdomen, over time causing pressure and creating torsion. The intestine may also fall into the space created by a hernia in the abdomen, eventually twisting and limiting blood supply. Rarely, the gut may twist from continued rolling in response to colic pain.

Avoiding sudden change in diet, fermenting carbohydrates and sticking to smaller meals may help prevent a twisted gut. If your horse has previously experienced a volvulus, your veterinarian may advocate further surgical re-sectioning of the intestines to prevent future twisting.