When your horse has the hiccups
Have you ever seen a horse with the hiccups? It’s called hypocalcemia, or thumps. A veterinarian first reported the condition in 1831 after hearing a thumping noise coming from the abdomen of a horse that had just finished a 13-mile race.
When horses have thumps, they don't make a hiccupping noise like humans do. You'll see a rhythmic contraction of their abdomen in sync with their heartbeat, up to 40-to-50-times-per-minute. It’s not a good idea to try and scare it out of a one-thousand-pound animal. Nor would it work.
Clinical Instructor Karen McCormick at the University of Tennessee's Veterinary Teaching Hospital says when vets see a horse with thumps, their first diagnosis is low calcium levels in the blood. One way this happens is when horses ingest a bug called a blister beetle.
"Blister beetles are these little bugs that are found in alfalfa hay. And so a horse may ingest those when it's eating the hay, and they really don't need to ingest very many," she says. "That can lead to hypocalcemia, the thumps."
Thumps can also be caused by colic, kidney disease, or electrolyte imbalances after a heavy workout.
Sometimes the twitching spasms are so subtle, you can only feel them under your hand. But in severe cases, you'll see it from several feet away.
"What happens is the nerve that goes to the diaphragm runs right over the hear," says McCormick. "And because of this low calcium, it makes that nerve more likely to fire. So, because it's running right over the heart there, the heart triggers it to fire every time the heart beats, and then the diaphragm contracts."
Thumps aren't harmful, but the underlying cause needs to be treated. Help your horse avoid the condition by providing proper nutrition and establishing a sensible conditioning schedule.
Learn more about thumps in horses
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