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What is colic in horses?

Colic in horses refers to abdominal pain and is a common condition that can have a range of causes.

It’s important to understand that “colic” is not a disease in itself, but rather a symptom of an underlying problem in the horse’s gastrointestinal tract.

Colic in horses is a term that sets off alarm bells for horse owners and caretakers worldwide.

It’s a symptom of abdominal pain that can stem from various gastrointestinal issues. Understanding the nuances of colic is crucial for anyone involved in equine care, as the condition ranges from mild discomfort to potentially life-threatening situations.

Early detection of colic symptoms significantly improves the chances of successful treatment.

Key symptoms include:

  • Pawing at the ground
  • Looking, kicking or biting the flank and stomach
  • Rolling or attempting to lie down frequently
  • Excessive sweating
  • Loss of appetite or decreased bowel movements
  • Being unable to pass droppings
  • Restlessness
  • Elevated heart rate
  • Stretching as if to urinate without doing so
  • Putting the head down to water as if to drink, but not drinking
  • Excessive gurgling sounds in the stomach
  • Repeatedly lying down, rolling, and getting up or attempting to do so

What causes colic in horses?

Colic in horses is most often related to the colon and can occur for many reasons, at the core of it is equine physiology.

Horses can’t vomit. It’s physically impossible.

This causes a lot of troubles for horses when other animals would simply throw up to dispel toxins or excess food.

A July 2019 article by Equus Magazine explains it: “The muscles of the equine lower esophageal sphincter are much stronger than in other animals, making it nearly impossible to open that valve under backward pressure from the stomach. Also, the equine esophagus joins the stomach at a much lower angle than in many animals, so when the stomach is distended, as with gas, it presses against the valve in such a way that holds it even more tightly closed. And, located deep within the rib cage, the equine stomach cannot be readily squeezed by the abdominal muscles. Finally, horses have a weak vomiting reflex. In other words, the neural pathways that control that activity in other animals are poorly developed in horses, if they exist at all.”

While there are many types of colic, there are essentially two categories: the kind that have a known root cause (non-idiopathic) and the kind that don’t (idiopathic).

Idiopathic forms of colic—like gas and impaction—make up more than 80% of cases.

However, they are usually less severe than other colic types.

Gas colic is excessive gas build-up in the horse’s intestines.

Gas colic is extremely common and usually not life threatening.

All colics are associated with some kind of gas build-up, but generally, gas colic in horses is caused by excess fluid or gas due to over-fermentation of food in the hindgut.

The resulting pressure and inflammation causes discomfort. 

To treat a gas colic, the veterinarian will most often insert a stomach tube through the horse’s nasal passage to relieve the pressure.

But sometimes simply hand walking or trotting on the longe line will do the trick.

Impaction colic is a blockage in the intestines caused by feed material.

Impaction colic is a cumulation of sand, dirt, or other indigestible materials in the horse’s colon.

As horses naturally eat from the ground (or at least they should), they tend to ingest a bit of dirt or sand along the way.

As you can imagine, this is difficult to pass and causes pain in the process. 

While impaction is relatively common and usually treatable on site, severe cases can quickly become surgical.

Gastric rupture occurs when an impaction reaches the horse’s stomach or gas build-up causes the stomach to dilate.

Gastric rupture is pretty rare.

Cases of acute idiopathic dilatation make up 16–60% of gastric rupture cases.

And although there are medical and surgical interventions for gastric dilation, gastric rupture contaminates the abdominal cavity with toxins and therefore is most often fatal.

Twisted gut is a serious condition where a part of the intestine becomes twisted.

Perhaps the most severe form of colic is strangulation of the large colon.

Colloquially referred to as a “twisted gut,” torsion is one of the most painful forms of colic in horses.

The large colon can twist up to 180 degrees without issue.

But if this large, U-shaped organ twists more than 270 degrees, it cuts off its own blood supply and effectively floods the horse’s system with toxins.

It accounts for more than 15% of colic surgeries and despite swift intervention to untwist the colon, it is often still fatal.

Intussusception is when the bowel telescopes.

This type of colic is very serious.

Usually caused by tapeworms and other parasites, intussusception is when a portion of bowel telescopes into a more outer section of the body.

This means that part of the bowel essentially folds into itself, and can cut off blood supply.

Although ultrasonography can sometimes help vets in diagnosing intussusception, the sensitivity of this diagnostic test is low.

If caught and treated early, horses can survive it, but all treatments involve surgical intervention.

Other factors that contribute to the risk of colic:

  • stomach or intestinal ulcers
  • sudden changes in diet
  • insufficient water intake
  • stress
  • lack of regular exercise

Diagnosis and treatment of colic in horses.

Veterinary diagnosis of colic involves various examinations and tests to determine the cause and severity of the condition.

The initial step is a comprehensive physical examination, where the veterinarian will assess your horse’s overall health, behaviour, and vital signs. They will also listen to gut sounds using a stethoscope to identify any abnormalities.

In addition to the physical exam, blood tests are often conducted to examine the horse’s blood cell counts, electrolyte levels, and organ function.

These tests can provide valuable insights into any underlying infections, dehydration, or organ dysfunction that may be contributing to the colic.

In some cases, veterinarians may also recommend an abdominal ultrasound to get a more detailed view of your horse’s gastrointestinal tract.

This non-invasive imaging technique can help identify any structural abnormalities, such as twisted intestines or intestinal blockages.

Once a proper diagnosis has been made, treatment strategies will be tailored to address the specific cause and severity of the colic.

Mild cases of colic may be managed conservatively through dietary changes, pain management, and close monitoring. However, more severe cases may require surgical intervention to correct any physical obstructions or twists.

Other treatment options for colic can include the administration of medications to alleviate pain, reduce inflammation, or promote intestinal motility.

Intravenous fluids may also be necessary to ensure proper hydration and electrolyte balance.

It’s crucial to work closely with your vet to develop an appropriate treatment plan for your horse’s colic, as early intervention and proper medical management can significantly improve the chances of a positive outcome.

Regular follow-up visits and ongoing monitoring are also essential to ensure your horse’s recovery and prevent any potential complications.

Remember, if you suspect your horse is experiencing colic, it is always recommended to seek immediate veterinary attention, as colic can be a life-threatening condition.

What to do if your horse colics.

If your horse shows signs of colic, it is crucial to act promptly and effectively.

Here’s a guide on what to do, the information you should provide to your vet, and how you can help your horse until the vet arrives.

  1. Immediately remove all food (hay, grass, grains). Your horse may want to gorge as a response to the pain, making the problem worse.
  2. Remove access to water until the veterinarian can examine your horse and pass a stomach tube. If the stomach is distended, allowing the horse to drink could result in a ruptured stomach.
  3. Call your vet as soon as you suspect colic. Colic can escalate quickly, and early intervention is key.
  4. Monitor symptoms and note any changes in your horse’s behaviour or symptoms. Look for signs such as pawing, rolling, looking at their flank, sweating, or restlessness.
  5. Do not administer any medication unless instructed by your vet, as this could mask symptoms and make diagnosis more difficult.

Information to provide your vet.

When you call your vet, be ready to provide the following information:

  1. Symptoms: Describe the symptoms you have observed, including any changes in behaviour or appetite.
  2. Vital signs: If you can, provide your horse’s heart rate, respiratory rate, and temperature.
  3. Recent changes: Inform about any recent changes in diet, exercise, environment, or stress factors.
  4. Medical history: Discuss any previous episodes of colic or other medical issues, including any medication the horse is currently taking.
  5. Deworming and dental records: Share the horse’s most recent deworming and dental care schedule if working with a new vet.

How to help your horse until the vet arrives.

  1. Check on your horse every 10-15 minutes. Do not take a wait-and-see approach to colic, because it can escalate in minutes. If you can’t stay with your horse, have someone else stay by your horse who can frequently check on them.
  2. Keep the horse calm: Try to keep your horse calm and comfortable. Stress can exacerbate the situation. This includes keeping yourself calm so that you don’t stress out your horse. If you can’t keep calm around your horse, get someone else to help you.
  3. Walk your horse: If your horse is willing and not too distressed, gentle walking can help, but do not force a horse that is exhausted or wants to lie down.
  4. Do not allow rolling: Rolling can increase the risk of a twisted gut. If your horse attempts to roll, try to keep them moving gently.
  5. Prepare for the vet’s arrival: Clear a space for the vet to work and have a halter and lead rope ready for your horse. Keep your phone close.
  6. Stay safe: Always prioritise your safety. A horse in pain can behave unpredictably.

Dealing with colic is stressful, but staying calm and prepared will make a huge difference.

Always call your vet immediately, and follow their guidance closely.

Remember, colic is a serious condition, and timely, professional medical intervention is critical for the health and well-being of your horse.

The Horse has this extensive list of 33 Do’s and Don’ts when your horse colics.

Prognosis and long-term care of colic in horses.

The prognosis for horses with colic varies.

While many cases are treatable, some can be fatal, emphasising the need for prompt veterinary care.

A holistic approach involving regular veterinary check-ups, good barn management practices, and attentive daily care can significantly reduce the risk of colic.

Preventive measures play a crucial role in mitigating the risk of colic:

  • Maintain a consistent feeding schedule with high-quality feed.
  • Ensure continuous access to clean water.
  • Regular exercise and turnout.
  • Consistent deworming and dental care.
  • Monitoring for any behavioural or feeding changes.

Colic in horses is a complex and potentially serious condition that demands prompt attention and care.

By understanding its causes, symptoms, and preventive measures, horse owners can be better prepared to tackle this challenge.

The key to successful management of colic lies in early detection and immediate veterinary intervention.

Stay observant, stay informed, and ensure your equine companions receive the best care possible.

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