Symptoms, Causes, Treatment and Prevention of Colic in Horses

Colic is one of the most common equine ailments. Knowing colic’s symptoms, causes and treatment can help guard your horse against this potentially fatal condition.

Colic is not a disease. It is, in fact, a collection of symptoms indicating abdominal pain. In simple terms colic is the equine equivalent to a tummy ache, but colic is not at all a simple matter. There are many types of colic, with over fifty different causes. No case of colic should be taken lightly and if colic is suspected, a call to the vet is in order.

Signs and Symptoms of Colic

The symptoms a horse exhibits may vary due to the type of colic, but in almost all cases the colicking horse will show signs of anxiety indicating that something is amiss. He will swish his tail, look back at his belly, paw, get up and lie down frequently and kick at his abdomen. His pulse will be elevated and he may develop a patchy sweat.

In general, the vet listen to the gut sounds, measure pulse, respiration, and the colour of the gums, and check for distention of the stomach (via a stomach tube) or an impaction (via the rectum) to help determine the type and severity of colic.

Types of Colic

Impaction Colic

Impaction colic is normally diet-related, caused by eating poor-quality food, improperly chewed feed, water deprivation or poor teeth. Horse can also have impaction caused by ingesting too much sand (ie drinking from a stream with a sandy bottom), or impaction caused by a parasite infestation. The horse with impaction colic will have an anxious expression, elevated pulse and respiration, pale mucous membranes and abdominal pain. For mild cases, withholding food and hay but encouraging the horse to drink will be sufficient to soften the impaction and allow it to pass. More severe cases require more aggressive treatment, including sedation, hydration (either via stomach tube or IV), and stool softener.

Flatulent Colic

Flatulent colic can be either primary (gaseous indigestion, caused by overindulging in lush grass or grain), or secondary, which accompanies a bowel obstruction. In both cases, the horse appears bloated, and if you tap his stomach, a hollow sound can be heard. Louder, high-pitched sounds will be heard via stethoscope. Administering an analgesic (such as banamine) for the pain, and walking to encourage the passing of gas is often a successful treatment for the primary type. For secondary, surgery may be required to remove the blockage.

Spasmodic Colic

Spasmodic colic is caused by contractions of the bowel, often triggered by anxiety, of as the result of a hot horse being allowed to drink too much cold water. The horse suffering from spasmodic colic will demonstrate his discomfort by rolling, pawing, shaking and kicking. Loud, rushing bowel sounds can be heard. Most horse will recover from spasmodic colic on their own, but if no improvement is noted within an hour, treat as for primary flatulent colic.

To Walk or Not to Walk

The jury is still out on the question of whether it is helpful to keep a horse walking during a colic episode. In some cases, walking can facilitate the release of gas. In other cases, walking will only serve to exhaust the horse, making him more uncomfortable. If you are uncertain, seek the advice of your vet. There is also some debate as to whether the horse should be allowed to lie down. Conventional wisdom used to dictate that the horse should be kept on his feet, but many vets will agree that unless a horse is rolling violently to the point that he might hurt himself, he can be allowed to lie down and even have a little roll or two.

The Best Cure is Prevention

Prevention of colic starts with good stable management. By following the rules of good feeding, keeping your de-worming and dentistry regimes up to date, and ensuring that your horse has access to fresh clean water, you can help keep colic away.

Remember that any case of colic is potentially serious. It is important to know what is “normal” for your horse, and to act swiftly when you notice behaviour that is out of the ordinary. If your horse is displaying any of the signs and symptoms of colic, call your vet. When it comes to colic in horses, you’re always better safe than sorry.

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One Reply to “Symptoms, Causes, Treatment and Prevention of Colic in Horses”

  1. You missed a type of colic – there are 4 types of colic, not 3. The 4th type is intussusception colic. Which besides being insanely difficult to spell, is colic that comes from part of the intesting (usually dead or dying) folding backwards into the healthy parts of the intestine… kind of light how a trombone can slide back into itself – telescoping. This happens if, perhaps parasite load, or strangulation from a tumor, have killed part of the intestine and the intestine shrinks just enough where it telescopes into the healthier portion. Very very very thing. Surgery may be able to help, with removing the dead intestine.
    Just thought I’d point that out. Otherwise, good article.

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