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Colic is a general term that refers to abdominal pain in horses. While some cases may be so mild they might not even be noticed, colic can quickly become a medical and even surgical emergency. In fact, according to the 2015 National Animal Health Monitoring System (NAHMS) Study, colic is the leading cause of death in horses aged 1 to 20 years. That is why it is so important for anyone who owns or cares for horses to understand the risk factors and causes of colic, its signs and symptoms, the different types of medical and surgical colic in horses, when to call the veterinarian out to diagnose and treat the condition, and what you can do to try and prevent colic in horses.
In most cases, the underlying cause of a colic episode is never determined. This is partly why myths and misconceptions abound such as the advice not to let a horse drink cold water after exercise, or not to let a horse roll if he’s showing signs of colic for fear that his intestines will twist. Fortunately, experts in the field have combed through the literature and identified some proven risk factors for colic in horses, many of which are preventable.
Early treatment of the colicky horse is key to a successful outcome. This means being able to quickly recognize the signs of colic in horses, including knowing how to take equine vital signs. Although some horses may demonstrate GI discomfort in their own unique way, the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) has developed a list of common signs and symptoms of colic in horses that every owner and caretaker should become familiar with:
Since the word “colic” is just a term for abdominal pain in the horse, it does not refer to a specific location or cause of the discomfort. There can be many reasons for an uncomfortable abdomen, some of which are simple and can be treated medically and some of which are more complicated and require surgery. The AAEP has classified the different types of equine colic into three main groups:
Depending on how painful a horse is upon arrival, the vet may get right to work treating him or start by reviewing some facts with the owner or caregiver and then perform a physical examination. The handler should be prepared to provide an accurate history (including the feeding program, the horse’s usual exercise and turnout routine, deworming and vaccination programs, any recent travel or other change) and to share current observations. Then the vet will examine the horse, which may include rechecking all the vital signs, listening to gut sounds, performing a rectal palpation, passing a nasogastric (stomach) tube, collecting fluid from the abdominal cavity, drawing blood, and other diagnostic tests such as ultrasound or x-ray. This collection of information helps the vet come up with a list of possible causes-for as well as types-of colic, which is necessary for developing a treatment plan.
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From the SmartPak Ask the Vet Blog: