A Horse Owner’s Guide to Colic

Robin Paterson, D.V.M.         Cerbat Cliffs Animal Hospital

Colic is a potentially devastating concern for any horse owner, but what is colic and what are the signs? What causes colic and how does an owner know when it is serious enough to call the vet? And what can an owner do to help their horse during a colic episode? You may wonder how likely it is that your horse may die, or if she recovers, whether or not she can return to work. The answers are as variable as the “disease” itself. This article is meant to give general information about colic and answer some basic questions that an owner may have.

What is colic?

Colic is really a symptom, or sign, of a disease causing abdominal pain in the horse. There are many, many potential, highly variable causes of pain including liver or kidney disease, intestinal gas, feed impaction, intestinal tumors, gastric ulcers, parasites, intestinal spasms, intestinal torsions or twists, and more. This list is by no means comprehensive but illustrates the range of potential problems that can occur inside the vast equine abdomen.

While a definitive cause cannot always be determined, most causes of colic are found to be gastrointestinal in origin, and are usually broken down into three broad categories of intestinal dysfunction, intestinal accident or gastrointestinal inflammation/ulceration. The intestinal tract of an average adult horse is about 100 feet long (from the oral cavity to the anus) and this allows for many places where something can pathologically go wrong.

Intestinal dysfunction includes gas distention, spasmodic colic or impactions (feed, feces) and these conditions are usually able to be treated with medical management, and often, mild cases can be treated without hospitalization. Poor quality feed, inadequate water (leading to dehydration), poor dental health resulting in poorly chewed food, parasitism, and sand accumulation can all contribute to these types of colic.

Intestinal accidents are termed such because there is no way to prevent their occurrence. These accidents include conditions such as intestinal twists, displacement or strangulations (for example a tumor wrapping around the intestine.) Usually these forms of colic are intensely painful and require surgery to correct.

Inflammation/ulceration includes conditions such as gastritis, enteritis or colitis and is often characterized by severe discomfort, often includes diarrhea and dehydration, and may progress to septicemia. Keep in mind that horses are physically unable to vomit, and it is important to withhold feed during any colic episode. Gastric ulcers are included in this classification, but aren’t generally as painful, do not exhibit diarrhea, and are usually more chronic (intermittent mild colic after eating, poor coat, unthrifty, responds well to prescription antacids.)

What are the signs of colic?

The signs are variable and depend on the underlying cause and the severity and duration. But keep in mind that even a severe colic will manifest with mild or subtle signs at the earliest stages, so it is imperative that an owner be observant and understand what they are seeing. Normal physical exam findings should be known (perhaps written down in an accessible location.) The temperature is between 99-101.0 degrees, heart rate between 36-48 beats per minute, respiratory rate between 10-24 breaths per minute, pink mucous membranes (gum line) with a 2 second or less capillary refill time (push on the gum with your finger until the color whitens, then release the finger and the gum should pinken within 2 seconds.) Most horses have between 6-10 normal fecal piles over the course of 24 hours.

Know what is normal for your horse, so that you will be able to identify abnormalities. Owners should seriously consider keeping a digital rectal thermometer and a decent quality stethoscope on site. It is helpful to track these vital signs to be able to report to the veterinarian during a colic. Consider keeping a small notebook for general health information (including diet history!) and to log all that occurs during the current colic episode, including the time.

The early, or mild signs of colic include reluctance to eat or avoidance of food, restlessness/lying down and rising frequently progressing to lying down more than usual, lip curling, More severe signs include complete anorexia, failure to pass normal feces, pawing at the ground, looking or pawing at the abdomen, stretching out on the side, grinding the teeth, bloated abdomen and rolling. Not all horses will exhibit all signs.

What is the treatment?

The treatment will vary depending on the veterinarian’s physical exam, diagnostic test results and the history that you provide. Generally, pain control is the first step in treatment, but this could be a combination of different medications. Sometimes, IV fluids or an oral fluid drench are administered. Laxatives, anti-spasmodic medications, or antibiotics may also be used depending on the underlying cause of the colic. Some cases will not resolve without surgical management and must be referred to an equine surgical specialist. Remember that all colics will start with the same subtle signs – please do not ignore any questionable behaviors. When in doubt, an owner may always contact their veterinarian to discuss the possibility of your horse’s behavior being early or mild colic.

What is the owner’s role in a colic episode?

Stay calm and document what signs are observed with your horse. Taking frequent temperatures, heart and respiratory rates is extremely helpful. Remove feed but offer fresh water. If your horse is not too painful and, if it is safe for you to do so, hand-walk your horse around her pen or barn. Call your veterinarian as soon as you think your horse may have colic signs. He or she will be able to talk to you about any appropriate medications and/or when to a veterinarian needs to examine your horse. Be sure to have your horse’s current medical history including diet history. In particular, note if there have been any feed/supplement changes or significant environmental changes such as changes in routine. Do not give any medications without first consulting with your veterinarian.

Although colic cannot always be prevented, regular veterinary check-ups, allowing appropriate exercise, feeding a high quality diet and supplement that is appropriate to your horse’s age and lifestyle, maintaining current vaccinations and appropriate deworming for your geographic region, providing plenty of fresh, clean water, maintaining proper dental care/health, and most importantly, knowing what is normal for your horse, are all critical factors in keeping your horse as healthy as she can be, and doing all that an owner can do to prevent colic from occurring.

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