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The Squirts

It happened again today. It was one of those “while you’re here” conversations we all have with our health providers. In this case it was Andrea asking about her aged warm blood gelding, Whiz.

“The other thing, if you have time. It’s not a big deal, but it’s annoying to me, and I’ll bet it’s annoying to him too.” I was writing Andrea’s bill, and nodded my head to show that I was listening. “When Whiz makes manure its usually pretty well formed, but then there is this juice that comes out right after. Sometimes his manure is loose too, but mostly it’s just the brown liquid right after he poops. I call it ‘the squirts’. It gets all over his hind legs, and well, it just bugs me. I’m forever cleaning him up back there. Anything we can do about that?”

I think I am asked this question, in just about the same way, no less than once a month. What is funny about it is that everyone always calls this particular problem “the squirts.” I never heard about it in vet school (as I remember). You can’t find it in any equine textbook. It is never mentioned at veterinary meetings, but ask your vet about it and for sure, they will be knowledgeable. From their experience you will get a long list of possible causes and cures. Although it’s not in the books, you will find it talked about on line at one of the many horse owner chat sites. For some reason everyone calls it “the squirts”. If you Google just the two words you can join the conversations. Surround the two words in quotes and you will get a bunch of raunchy entries that have nothing at all to do with horses.

My wife was an elementary school teacher. One day in her classroom she picked up on a distinctive odor. Bonnie walked up and down the rows of 7 year olds at their desks. The smell got stronger right next to Carl. She bent down and said quietly to him, “Carl, Do you feel OK? Would you like to go down and see the nurse and get cleaned up?” Carl said, “No, Mrs Jefferson, I’m OK. I just got the squirts.” I guess we all just know the term from a young age.

In the stomach of healthy horses food mixes with water and saliva. As it passes into the small intestine it’s a thick liquid. In the large intestine most of the water gets reabsorbed. In the colon the body recycles more, and the ingesta is compacted and takes on the form of the familiar fecal balls. Anything that interferes with the reabsorption of water means that the manure will be less solid. This can mean pure diarrhea, but in horses like Whiz we will see the usual fecal balls and those liquid squirts. The “anything” can be something simple that irritates the gut like too many acorns or apples. An overgrowth of some bacteria, protozoa, yeasts or viruses can do the same. I own a donkey that gets the squirts when he is nervous.

In my experience horses with the squirts are usually mature, often in their 20’s. It doesn’t seem to make a difference if it’s a stallion, mare, or gelding. I think I have heard the complaint from owners of every breed. I have seen it in the best managed stables and in some very marginal ones.

If your horse has this problem, mention it the next time your vet is in the barn. Hopefully he or she will do a thorough physical exam. If it is more than occasional, a fecal test and or blood work may be indicated. Don’t be surprised if everything checks out OK. In most cases I end up talking about possible causes to see if any ring a bell with the owner. We often arrive at a diagnosis through the back door of stopping this or trying that until we find an answer. Not the text book way to arrive at a diagnosis, but the situation often dictates this approach.

Sand picked up from close grazing can cause it. Its gritty nature can irritate the lining of the intestine. An irritated intestinal wall doesn’t reabsorb water well. Psyllium given regularly will pick up sand from the gut and take it out. It is available as a powder or in pellets.

There was an older mare just two towns away from me who had the squirts. Sometimes the liquid would come out in an explosive way and hit the stall wall with a splash. We tried different things over a course of weeks, but any relief was only temporary. Her farrier was getting a bit annoyed because her squirting episodes were unpredictable. It wasn’t a pleasant environment to be working in. He is known as a man of few words, and one day dropped the hind foot he was working on said, “I think you should take her off this coarse hay and put her on hay pellets. I bet she’d bind up proper.” The owner ran this idea by me, and I told her it didn’t make sense to me, but we had tried everything else. Sure enough, within two days of being on hay pellets, the squirts stopped. Was the coarse hay irritating the intestinal wall? I’m not sure, but in retrospect I remembered that she was missing a few teeth. Her manure stayed normal until she died at a good old age. I don’t expect that to work on every case, but it is something to try.

I will never forget crusty old Charley and his mare Star. I would describe her problem as squirts on steroids. One day formed manure, the next day she might have explosive diarrhea. Through it all she stayed happy. At the time I owned an equine hospital. Charlie just showed up one day with Star and dropped her off.

“Fix her. Call me when she’s better.” I took it on as a challenge. Blood and fecal samples were sent off. I tried supplements, antibiotics and all kinds of drugs designed to slow down the gut. I tried homeopathy and acupuncture. My staff gave her every possible combination of feeds. We did everything but call in a witch doctor. Nothing worked. Charlie would call every day or two and get the no progress report. Finally after 3 weeks later, with no warning, just like he had arrived, Charlie showed up to take Star home. He loaded her in his trailer and paid his bill which I discounted because of my total lack of success.

As he latched the door on the trailer Charlie said, “Tell you what I’ve decided. I’m turning her out on that lush 10 acre field way out back that has the pond. I’m not going to even look at her for a week.” I told Charlie that all that spring grass might make the diarrhea way worse. She might die! Charlie replied, “Kill her or cure her, one way or the other that mess from her hind end is going to be over.” A week later my phone rang and I recognized the number. I dreaded picking up as I figured that old Star was gone. “She’s all better. No diarrhea and no squirts.” To this day I get razzed by Charlie about him switching to Dr Grass to cure Star. Would it work on another horse? I don’t know.

I usually recommend as a first treatment to put a squirting horse on probiotics, or more lately also prebiotics. The problem can be caused by a bacterial imbalance, and sometimes a daily dose of “good” bacteria will overwhelm the bacteria that might be causing the situation. My second recommendation is often pysllium. Next would be Bio Sponge powder or paste. Sometimes the supplements for hind gut ulcers are helpful. Pepto Bismol or Kaopectate can tighten up an acute case. Protozoa such as Trichomonas or Giardia may be responsive to the antibiotic Metronidazole.

So the annoying situation of the squirts has many possible causes and just as many possible solutions. With the help of your vet try to figure out the why, and then try what makes the most sense. Without a definite diagnosis you just have to experiment. “One at a time and give it time” is a good slogan. Don’t be tempted to try everything at once as you won’t learn what is working. You have time to work it through. It’s like bad manners. The squirts are annoying but never fatal.

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