Colic in Horses
Equine Colic & Digestive Health
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:
- Looking at, kicking or biting the abdomen
- Stretching out as if to urinate
- Repeatedly lying down and getting up
- Sitting in a dog-like position or lying on the back
- Not eating or drinking
- Lack of bowel movements
- Absent or reduced digestive sounds
- Elevated respiration or heart rate
- Lip curling (Flehman response)
If you see any signs of colic in your horse, remove all food, put him in a safe area, collect whatever vital signs you safely can, and call your vet. Information that will be especially helpful to your vet in determining if your horse needs to be seen right away includes the specific signs of colic that you’ve observed and their severity; temperature, pulse, and respiration; gum color, moistness, and refill; gut sounds, and any recent bowel movements.
Based on this info, your vet will determine if this is a simple case of “wait and see” or an emergency that needs to be looked at right away. Either way, you’ll receive specific instructions on what to do and what not to do while you’re waiting such as:
- hand walk? -- yes but not excessively
- feed? -- not hay or grain but possibly handfuls of grass or a few treats to check appetite
- allow to lie down and/or roll? -- yes if calm
- administer medication? -- only if specifically directed to do so
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.
- signs of complete or partial obstruction of the bowel
- persistent or severe abdominal pain
- the horse appears to be going into circulatory shock,
- a lack of response to medical treatment in general
Stabling and activity
Health and wellness care
- always have access to clean, fresh water
- are on the lowest effective dose of non-steroidal anti-inflammatories for the shortest period of time as prescribed by the veterinarian, and
- have limited sand intake and are supplemented with psyllium to assist with fecal sand clearance
From our site:
From the SmartPak Ask the Vet Blog:
SmartPak strongly encourages you to consult your veterinarian regarding specific questions about your horse's health. This information is not intended to diagnose or treat any disease, and is purely educational.