Colic in Horses, Foremilk Stripping in Cows, Docking Lambs Tails and More

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Colic has many causes, but always reflects abdominal discomfort.

Dear Andrea:

Recently, my two-year-old registered quarter horse gelding came down with a case of colic. The vet said it wasn’t too serious, but I was alarmed by my horse’s symptoms and felt helpless while awaiting the doc’s arrival. What causes colic, and is there anything I can do to prevent or alleviate it?

Simon MillerCarbondale, IL

Dear Simon:

Colic is a general term used to describe any crisis which causes abdominal discomfort in a horse. Most cases of colic are not catastrophic; in fact, a majority pass with little intervention. Some horses suffer colic when their environment or feeding schedule is changed. In fact, any alteration in routine management may cause a horse to colic. Many bacteria and viruses cause colic; horses that travel frequently may encounter sick animals and become ill themselves. One of the most common causes of colic is parasites and their migration throughout the intestines. Sometimes horses may nibble on pieces of rubber fencing, nylon hay netting, their blankets, baling twine, plastic bags, and the like, and wind up swallowing a piece. On rare occasions, this object can become lodged almost anywhere past the stomach and produce severe twisting of the intestines and bloat, both life-threatening emergencies.

Signs of colic vary from extremely mild to severe. Mild signs include an animal that is not eating but is stretching more often (as if to urinate), looking at his flanks, turning around and nipping at them, or lying down frequently. More severe signs include pawing, walking the stall, lying down and getting up frequently, and rolling. An animal in severe colic pain will also sweat and breathe with difficulty.

If your horse is showing some signs of colic, here are some things to consider doing. Take the animal’s food away and simply observe him. Do not remove the horse’s water. Note his pulse rate and respiratory rate. Take the pulse from the artery that runs on the underside of the jaw bone. Take the respiratory rate by watching the animal’s sides move or nostrils flare with each breath. If the signs of colic are mild (i.e., the horse is not lying down, but he is simply not acting himself) it probably won’t hurt to wait a half hour and take the pulse and respiratory rate again. If they have both increased or the horse begins showing signs of more severe pain (sweating, rolling, pawing, kicking), it’s time to call your veterinarian. From behind the horse, check the profile of the abdomen for swelling. In a severe colic, the flanks often become filled due to gassy intestines and expand the area between the ribs and the hip bones. A swollen abdomen should hasten your call for assistance.

Some owners will medicate an animal prior to calling the veterinarian to see if the horse responds to a pain reliever. One injection, however, can mask a lot of pain and confuse the diagnosis once the vet arrives. Walking the animal is a safe thing to do if he is not in severe pain. Use caution and watch yourself if the horse decides he would like to roll. And never turn a colicky horse out to pasture: Further violent rolling and running will easily worsen an already imminent twisted gut or bloat. Try to anticipate the veterinarian’s arrival and have a warm bucket of water, a nasogastric tube (used to empty the stomach), and a sturdy halter available. Don’t clean the stall, as the vet will probably want to know how much manure the animal has passed and its consistency since the problem began.

Upon arrival, the vet will check the horse’s hydration and shock status by examining the mucous membranes and heart rate. High heart rates often indicate pain, shock, or both. The status of the intestinal tract is more adequately evaluated via auscultation (listening with a stethoscope) or rectal examination. After taking the temperature of the horse, the veterinarian will pass a nasogastric tube through the nose, down the esophagus, and into the stomach. Passing this tube relieves pressure on the stomach and small intestine, and allows the administration of large quantities of a laxative such as mineral oil to help get the intestines moving along again. Often, this procedure and the administration of a pain reliever alleviate colic. Certain animals, however, require surgery to relieve the pain and correct the problem. Impaction colicswhen dehydrated food blocks the intestinal systemrequire several of the above treatments prior to cure.

Good farm management is the key to preventing colic. Have all horses wormed regularly, especially if new horses come and go frequently. Use only hay that has been adequately dried or fermented slightly. Straw used as bedding may be dangerous, as some horses find it appetizing. Do not allow access to freshly mowed fields or too much lush grass. Exercise animals after adequate digestion time (hours after feeding). Bran mashes are extremely useful supplements if fed on a regular basis. Make any changes in feeding, exercise, and environment gradually, and always be sure fresh water is available.

Dear Andrea:

What advantage does foremilk stripping have? Our neighbor insists upon it, but we heard that it can cause a raging mastitis in the barn.

Chad Cooper
Osakis, MN

Dear Chad:

Removing a few streams of milk from each teat prior to preparing for milking is known as “foremilk stripping” or simply “stripping the udder.” Foremilk contains relatively higher numbers of bacteria and white blood cells, or somatic cells, which fight infections that cause mastitis–an inflammation of the mammary gland. The advantage to removing this milk from the teat canal is that it will improve milk quality and reduce the potential for organisms moving up into the mammary tissue. It is also a great way to screen, or visually check, for infected quarters in a herd.

Stripping can spread infection if it is done improperly, for example, onto hands, wash towels, or the stanchion bed. Here, it is not only difficult to see what the first milk is like, but once these same hands, towels, or stanchion beds come into contact with contaminated foremilk, they can actually transmit bacteria to other animals during the milking process. For this reason, the teat should always be washed after stripping, and stripping should never be done anywhere but onto a strip plate which is sanitized after each cow, or onto the floor of the milk parlor, which likewise can be sanitized after each animal. Stripping must be done in a gentle motion, to encourage the maximum release of the milk discharging hormone, oxytocin, into the cow’s bloodstream.

Dear Andrea:

Do you believe in docking lambs’ tails? If so, what’s the best way to do this?

Carey Glenmullen
Thunder Bay, Ontario

Dear Carey:

All lambs should have their tails cut or docked. Long tails harbor dampness and encourage flies and maggots, as well as infection. Sheep carrying long tails are not showable and are frequently difficult to sell. Thus, for the sake of both the farmer and the flock, I am in favor of docking lambs’s tails.

You should dock your lambs’s tails when they are under a week old. Waiting to have this done when the lambs are mature causes them and the flock more stress, and the connection between stress and illness is all too well documented. There are several methods you could use to dock tails. Any sharp implement will cut the tail (knife, sharpened chisel), and if the animals are young enough, simple pressure, silver nitrate, some corn starch, or a few sutures will usually arrest bleeding.

The best method, however, is to use an emasculator, which most farm or ranch supply stores carry. This instrument quickly cuts the excess tail off and crushes the blood vessels in the process, so the procedure is relatively clean and bloodless. The plastic or rubber elastrator bands (rubber bands) people use for castrating and tail docking cause a great deal of pain to the animal and can result in infection and poor weight gain.

Don’t forget to dip the tails in antiseptic solution prior to and following removal to prevent infection. People usually give tetanus antitoxin at the same time. You may routinely castrate lambs at this age as well. You should leave about an inch or so of tail on the animal.

Dear Andrea:

Our five-month-old retriever has had several episodes of being unable to climb steps. We know his parents were free of hip problems. Could he have hip problems anyway?

Matt Bedford
Santa Fe, NM

Dear Matt:

Many dogs experience “growing pains,” or various ailments in their younger years which cause lameness and limit their exercising. Some dis eases are nutritional in nature, others hereditary, and most have some environmental, if not traumatic, aspects to them. For instance, young dogs of large breeds are prone to what we term metabolic bone diseases. Frequently, the cartilage in their bones may fail to ossify in the joint regions, or a heavy parasite burden may result in a fever or relative inflammation of certain bones. Improper nutrition, namely higher protein and/or calorie content of foods, could cause areas of some of the larger, long bones to mature at a different rate than other parts, creating a great deal of lameness in the animal. Hip dysplasia is thought to be one of the many metabolic bone diseases affecting both purebred and mixed-bred dogs. Dogs with dysplasia experience arthritis and dislocation of their hip joints.

Most puppies show signs of these diseases early in life, during their rapid phases of growth (3-12 months). However, some dogs may not show signs until very late in life, even though the disease may have been present since puppyhood. Unfortunately, we do not know enough about the genetics of this disease to predict which animals are most likely to be affected. We do know that breeding dogs with the problem is likely to result in a litter of puppies in which some are affected and some not. Unfortunately, breeding two normal dogs will not guarantee a litter of unaffected animals. Thus, there a possibility that your dog may be affected with hip problems.

Your veterinarian can perform an orthopedic exam to be sure of where the problem is. During this exam, the vet assesses the joints, bones, and range of motion of the limbs. Your vet can carefully examine the muscles for atrophy or swelling, and take X-rays to assess potential damage or to determine where the injury is. If you are interested in breeding the dog, you can have the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals formally evaluate the X-rays when your animal is two years old. In a young dog, there are many surgical procedures which can lessen the pain of hip dysplasia. Medical therapies include antiinflammatories, chiropractic manipulations, and acupuncture.

Dear Andrea:

I own a sweet blue parakeet which we keep in a heated room at night. I thought that birds needed warm temperatures, but I had heard it mentioned that the hot air caused sneering and colds. Is it true?

Karin Scobey
Olympia, WA

Dear Karin:

A healthy bird can tolerate temperatures comfortable to its owner, and those temperatures within the 65–75-degree range are best. And contrary to popular opinion, natural drafts are not as harmful to healthy birds as once was thought. The exception to this generality is the cold air produced by air conditioners, and drafts that quickly change extremes. Frequent opportunities for supervised access to fresh air and direct sunlight appear to be very beneficial to most birds.

Problems arise when the temperatures are too high or the humidity is not adequate, as is usually the case with forced hot air heating. Dry mucous membranes result, which in turn exacerbates vitamin A deficiency, a common denominator of many respiratory problems in caged birds. The less moisture in the mucous membranes, the less efficient the barrier between and within cells that prevents microorganisms from penetrating.

You can help reduce the dryness in the room and prevent common colds by providing your bird with a bath in addition to his fresh water source. You could also spray or mist him with warm water to provide the rain-forest effect. Keeping live plants in his room will also increase humidity. Some folks even take their birds in the shower with them, which is also a good idea. You should perform the bathing “ritual,” whatever the method, once a day and you can use regular tap water as long as it is lukewarm and you allow it to stand for more than 24 hours before you use it.

Dear Andrea:

Why do “fixed” animals tend to gain more weight?

Michelle Shortridge
Tripoli, SD

Dear Michelle,

Spayed and neutered dogs and cats lose their sources of some very important hormones, namely estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. These hormones are responsible not only for functioning sexual activity in the animal, but, as steroids, they maintain much of the body’s normal metabolism as well. Without these hormones, animals tend to become more sedentary and gain weight. As they continue to eat, the excess might make them progressively more reluctant to exercise, and the obesity cycle is born.

It’s important to try to prevent obesity as much as possible as the downfalls of owning a “fat Fluffy and Fido” are many. Joint and locomotion problems appear soon after weight gain begins. Overweight animals and humans alike then experience heart and lung problems, increased susceptibility to illness (especially skin disease, diabetes, and cancer), irritability, and fatigue.

The obese dog and cat is often a helpless victim of its owner’s compulsion to “treat” or “feed out of compassion:” Thus, the owner should establish a goal of weight loss for the animal over a period of months. It helps to feed small amounts more frequently. I would suggest consulting your veterinarian for the proper amount of food to feed based on the calories per cup or can. Simply feeding less of your pet’s current diet is not only often innefective, it’s an easy way to create serious problems and nutritional deficiencies that are often irreversible.