Lethargic Horse, Trouble Urinating, What Is It?

Q:I have a 13-year-old Quarter Horse gelding that is lethargic and has trouble urinating. He is stretching a lot and lying down; he's just not his jovial self. He has been eating, but he isn't ravenous or showing enthusiasm about his food. We thought at first the culprit might be bladder stones and/or colic, but he is not really exhibiting colic signs. What else could be affecting my horse?

Lisa Sicotte, Winnipeg, Manitoba

A:These signs are typical of a horse with mild abdominal pain. Horses with mild abdominal pain often posture to urinate without actually producing any urine. Although your horse's discomfort could be related to his urinary system, I would be equally (if not more) suspicious that he has a problem with his gastrointestinal or another system, even though his signs might not be what you would consider typical for colic.

Unfortunately, horses are not always very good at telling us exactly what is bothering them. While most owners are aware of the usual signs of colic (which can include pawing, kicking at the abdomen, lying down frequently, and rolling), signs of mild colic might include decreased appetite, curling the top lip into a flehmen expression, playing in the water bucket, lying down excessively, and frequent posturing to urinate, with or without producing urine. More severe signs of colic might include the horse throwing itself against walls or onto the ground and refusing to move. Although colic is usually considered to be a problem with the stomach or intestines, the word "colic" just means abdominal pain, and other parts of the abdomen, such as the kidneys, spleen, liver, or urinary bladder, could cause him pain. The horse shows us this pain with typical signs of colic. Although relatively uncommon, some horses with problems outside their abdomens, such as horses with pneumonia, might also show signs of colic.

In your horse's case, further investigation is warranted to determine the source of the discomfort. The first step is definitely to have your veterinarian perform a thorough physical examination, including palpation per rectum, which might help to identify structural problems with organs in the back half of the abdomen and pelvis, including the colon, spleen, left kidney, urinary bladder, urethra, and cecum. Blood samples might also be useful to determine if there is any evidence of infection or organ dysfunction, such as kidney or liver disease. If the source of discomfort remains elusive, more advanced diagnostic tests might be required. Some veterinarians have the equipment to perform these tests at the farm, but referral to an equine hospital is often required. These additional tests might include ultrasound of the abdomen to evaluate organ structure, radiographs of the abdomen to look for enteroliths (stones) or sand, endoscopy of the stomach to look for ulcers or tumors, and collection of a small sample of peritoneal fluid to look for evidence of inflammation or infection.

Once the source of discomfort is identified, appropriate treatment can be instituted, and hopefully your horse will be back to normal soon.

About the Author

Amy Johnson, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM

Amy Johnson, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM (LAIM and Neurology), is an assistant professor of large animal medicine and neurology at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine. Her research interest is in large animal neurology, particularly in regards to diagnostic testing for neurologic conditions such as botulism and equine protozoal myeloencephalitis (EPM).

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