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Colic in Horses

What is Colic?

The term ‘colic’ means pain in the abdomen. There can be many causes of this pain, ranging from the mild to the life-threatening. One of the problems with equine colic is that it can be 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 and veterinary attention should be sought.

Signs of Colic

The following list is the most common signs seen with colic. Some horses may show many of these while others show very little signs:

  • Lying down more than usual
  • Standing stretched out
  • Turning the head towards the flank
  • Repeatedly curling the upper lip
  • Pawing the ground
  • Sweating up
  • Kicking at the belly
  • Rolling

What to do

If your horse is showing violent signs of colic, such as rolling, call your vet immediately. Violent behaviour usually equates to great pain, which can mean a serious case of colic.

If the signs of pain are less extreme, take a few minutes to observe your horse’s appearance and behaviour before you call the vet.

Take all food away from the horse until the vet arrives. Walking may take the horse’s mind off the pain, but do not walk to the point of exhaustion. If the horse wants to roll there will be little you can do to stop them. Try and get the horse into an area where they will do themselves the least damage when they roll.

Once the vet arrives, they will ask you lots of questions about feeding, worming and normal behaviour of your horse. When did the horse last pass normal muck? When did you last see the horse normal? How old is your horse? All these answers help us to establish whether the colic may be serious.

Major types of Colic

  • Gas Colic – Gas may build up in the intestines, especially the large intestine and caecum. The gas stretched the intestine, causing pain. Gas colic normally resolves fairly easily with treatment. It is essential to make sure there is no underlying reason for the problem
  • Spasmodic Colic – This is due to increased intestinal contractions, which can cause pain. These cases respond well to treatment.
  • Impaction Colic – The intestine becomes blocked by a firm mass of food. Impactions commonly occur in the large intestine, which has numerous bends or ‘flexures’. Intravenous fluid therapy, liquid paraffin and pain killers usually allow these impactions to pass through, but some severe ones may require surgical removal.
  • Twisted gut’ – A piece of the intestine twists around itself. The horse has large amounts of intestine which can either displace or twist. Twisted guts are very serious, and the intestines will stop working and fluid will build up in the intestines found before the twist (blockage). Most of these cases require surgical correction. Early stages of colic due to a twisted gut may look very similar to spasmodic or gas colic, so it is essential your horse is closely monitored for signs of deterioration by your vet.
  • Gastric Distension/Rupture – The horse is unable to vomit, so if it gorges itself on grain or dried beet pulp (which may swell once in the stomach) there may be serious consequences. In severe cases, the stomach may burst, which is fatal. If you suspect your horse has eaten unsoaked sugar beet pulp or has gorged itself on grain contact your vet immediately for advice.
  • ‘Unknown’ – In many cases of colic it is impossible to determine the reason for the pain. Symptomatic treatment and close monitoring are often enough to treat the problem

Prevention of Colic

  • An annual colic incidence is approx 10%, of which 2-3% of these will require surgery to treat the colic. There are a few things you can do to reduce the risk of your horse suffering from colic:
  • Allow as much turnout as possible. Horses graze constantly in the wild, so being fed 2 meals of hard feed a day and several haynets is not a natural feeding pattern.
  • Maintain a regular feeding schedule
  • Ensure constant access to fresh water
  • Provide at least 60% of digestible energy from forage. This has higher fibre content which helps prevent impaction colic
  • Do not feed mouldy hay or grain.
  • Make any changes to exercise level, diet or management gradually
  • Do not feed or water horses until they have cooled down. Large amounts of food or cold water may cause spasms of the intestine wall.
  • Ensure your horse is regularly wormed, especially against tapeworm. This has been proven to increase the risk of colic.
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