Equine Vet Services


What is Colic?

The term "colic" means "pain in the abdomen" or "pain in the belly".
There are many causes for such pain, ranging from the mild and inconsequential to life-threatening or fatal.
One of the problems with equine colic is that it can be very difficult in the early stages to distinguish the mild
from the potentially fatal. This is why all cases of abdominal pain should be taken seriously right from the onset.

Despite all of the advances in modern veterinary medicine, colic is still the number one killer of horses. In an attempt to
provide our horses with the best, we have inadvertently interfered with the horse's efficient digestive adaptation that developed
over centuries. Horses are at their digestive best when foraging on dried grasses scattered over arid ground and roaming in search
of sustenance. The horse evolved to intermittently snack throughout the day, yet we place him in confined spaces and twice daily supply
him with abundant food that is dried and in a relatively concentrated form. It is a wonder that horses have as little colic as they do.

Prevention of colic

If you happen to be a horse, colic is probably an unfortunate fact of life..
Listed below are some of the management factors which are thought to reduce colic incidence. Horses which fall into
high-risk categories, such as stabled horses in intense training and fit horses recently injured, should be monitored
particularly closely.

It is agreed that the most effective way to prevent colic is to minimize changes in your routine care of your horse.
Horses are creatures of habit; they thrive on routine, both mentally and physically. The most appropriate means of saving your
horse from colic is for you to learn and use excellent preventive management.

  • Provide clean water always. Make sure it remains unfrozen in winter.

  • Keep your horse's diet consistent, and feed at least 60% of his diet (by weight) as roughage (hay or pasture). High-grain diets
    increase colic risk by three to four times.

  • Avoid changes in feed when possible. There is a quadruple increase in colic risk when diet is changed.

  • Maintain a regular feeding schedule.

  • Feed good-quality hay, not too coarse and not too fine. Avoid dust and mold.

  • Use feeding systems that minimize eating directly off the ground. The best technique is a feeding system that prevents your
    horse from spreading hay through the dirt.

  • Feed hay and water before grain.

  • Feed psyllium products for five to seven consecutive days each month to move dirt and sand through the bowel if sand colic is
    a problem in your area.

  • Implement an aggressive deworming program with regular fecal examinations and dosing with a deworming medication every
    four to eight weeks as indicated by the fecal examination. Dose appropriately to your horse's body weight and make sure all of
    the medication is ingested.

  • Allow as much turnout as possible. Provide access to forage for as much of the day as possible

  • Do not feed or water horses before they have cooled out



Major types of colic

Impaction colic: This is the term used when the intestine becomes blocked by a firm mass of food. Impactions most commonly
occur in the large intestine at one of the flexures. This is a fairly common type of colic which usually resolves relatively easily
with appropriate treatment.
However, an impaction may be just the first obvious sign in a more complicated case.

Gas colic: Sometimes gas builds up in the intestine, most commonly in the large intestine and/or caecum. The gas stretches
the intestine, causing pain. Gas colics usually resolve fairly easily with appropriate treatment, although it is essential to ensure
that there is no underlying reason for the problem.

Spasmodic colic: Some cases of colic are due to increased intestinal contractions, the abnormal spasms causing the intestines
to contract painfully. These cases usually respond fairly well.

Displacement/volvulus/torsion ('twisted gut"): In a "displacement", a portion of the intestine has moved to an abnormal position
in the abdomen.
A "volvulvus" or "torsion" occurs when a piece of the intestine twists. The suspension of the small intestine from the mesentery
(the "net curtain") and the unfixed nature of much of the large intestine predispose horses to intestinal displacements and torsions.
Except in rare cases, these types of colic cause a total blockage of the intestine and require immediate surgery if the horse is to
survive. In the early stages of a displacement/torsion colic, the signs may be similar to those of a horse with one of the more
benign causes of colic. That is why it is important to take all cases of colic seriously, and to seek veterinary advice at an early stage.

Enteritis/colitis: Some cases of abdominal pain are due to inflammation of the small (enteritis) or large (colitis) intestines.
These are serious medical cases and require immediate veterinary attention.

Gastric distension/rupture: When a horse gorges itself on grain or, even more seriously, a substance which expands when
dampened like dried beet pulp, the contents of the stomach can swell. The horse's small stomach and its inability to vomit mean
that in these circumstances the stomach may burst.
Once this has happened death is inevitable.
If you suspect that your horse may have gorged itself on concentrate feeds, seek veterinary advice immediately.

"Unknown": In many cases of colic it is impossible to determine the reason for the pain. Symptomatic treatment, close monitoring
and attention to any adverse developments usually lead to resolution of the problem.

Signs of Colic

The signs of colic in horses range from almost imperceptible in mild cases to extremely violent in severe cases. The following list
includes the most common signs:

lying down more than usual
getting up and lying down repeatedly
standing stretched out
standing frequently as if to urinate
turning the head towards the flank
repeatedly curling the upper lip
pawing the ground
kicking at the abdomen

What to do

The severity of the case will dictate what you do when you find your horse showing signs of colic. If he is behaving violently call your
veterinarian immediately. Violent behavior usually equates with great pain which usually equates with a serious case of colic. Time is
of the essence here. Not all horses show the same severity of signs with the same type of colic, though, and some horses may
become quite violent with a relatively "mild" case.

If the signs of pain are less extreme, you can take a few minutes to observe the horse's appearance and behavior before calling
the veterinarian.

  • If possible, take his temperature, pulse and respiration rates.

  • Note what his appetite has been like in the past day or so, and the consistency and frequency of defecation.

  • Has his water intake been normal?

  • Are his gums a normal color?

  • Think about whether he has had access to any unusual feedstuffs in the past day or so, whether any medications have been
    administered, and whether there have been any changes in management.

  • Now call your veterinarian.

  • It is important to take all food away from the horse until the veterinarian arrives.

  • If he is nibbling at his bedding, find a way to prevent this.

  • Walking the horse can be a useful way of distracting him from the pain, but he should not be walked to exhaustion.

  • If the horse insists on rolling, there will be little you can do to prevent it. If possible, try to get the horse to an area
    where he will do himself the least damage when he rolls. But do not get hurt yourself.

  • Do not administer any drugs until your veterinarian has seen the horse, or unless he/she tells you to do so.

  • Borborygmus:  This refers to the sounds that the gut makes in digesting the feed.  A horse should have a normal
    gurgling sound on both sides of the abdomen back near the flanks.  Check your horse when he is healthy, that way you can
    make a better
    determination of what can be considered "normal", "none", "low", or "hypermotile". 

    During colic episodes, horses with little or no gut sounds may be in serious condition.  A hypermotile gut may be
    indicating an irritation, and this may be coupled with a loose stool or diarrhea.  Assessing the gut sounds from one
    moment to the next may indicate whether a horse's condition is improving or deteriorating.  Take this, and all of the
    vital signs, frequently.


Your vet will listen for "gut sounds" (digestive sounds) in the locations above on both the
left and right side of your horse. You should be familiar with the normal gut sounds your horse has.


Equine Veterinary Service
4025 Coleman Cut Road   Paducah, KY. 42001
Phone (270) 554-6601     Fax (270) 554-0089

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If your horse is injured, lame or ill please call us for an appointment.
We will not offer advice, diagnose or treat a horse by email.

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