What is Colic?
The term "colic" means "pain in the abdomen" or "pain in the
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.
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
Listed below are some of the management factors which are
thought to reduce colic incidence. Horses which fall into
stabled horses in intense training and fit
horses recently injured, should be monitored
is agreed that the most effective way to prevent colic is to
minimize changes in your routine care of your
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).
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.
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
horse from spreading hay through the dirt.
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
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.
as much turnout as possible.
access to forage for as much of the day as possible
not feed or water horses before they have cooled out
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
causing pain. Gas colics usually resolve fairly easily
with appropriate treatment, although it is essential to ensure
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
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
surgery if the horse is to
survive. In the early stages of a
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
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
"Unknown": In many cases of colic it is impossible to
determine the reason for the pain. Symptomatic treatment, close
and attention to any
adverse developments usually lead to
resolution of the problem.
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:
down more than usual
up and lying down repeatedly
frequently as if to urinate
the head towards the flank
curling the upper lip
at the abdomen
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
of the essence here. Not all horses show the same severity of
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
take his temperature, pulse and respiration rates.
his appetite has been like in the past day or so, and the
consistency and frequency of defecation.
water intake been normal?
Are his gums
a normal color?
whether he has had access to any unusual feedstuffs in the past
day or so, whether any medications have been
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
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
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
will do himself the least damage when he rolls. But do not get hurt yourself.
Do not administer
any drugs until
veterinarian has seen the horse, or unless he/she tells you to do
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
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
vital signs, frequently.
Your vet will listen for
"gut sounds" (digestive sounds) in the locations above on both
left and right side of your horse. You should be familiar with
the normal gut sounds your horse has.