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Colic in Horses: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment, and Prevention

Dean Eby

June 18, 2021

Spend enough time around horses and you’re sure to see a bout of colic at some point. It’s a rather common equine digestive disorder with a wide range of causes. Colic can be a minor issue or a life or death situation, so, every case of colic should be treated immediately and as if it were a very serious matter, for it just might be. Because it’s a prevalent problem, you should be armed with the information necessary to diagnose, treat, and even prevent colic in horses.

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What is Colic

Colic just means abdominal pain. Obviously, this makes it a pretty broad term. Colic can have many different underlying causes, which is why you should always treat it like it’s a potential emergency. Sometimes colic can be cured with just one dose of medication. But other times, it’s so bad that euthanasia is necessary.

What Causes Colic in Horses?

Because colic has so many different potential causes in horses, veterinarians don’t usually attempt to identify a specific cause. Rather, they tend to categorize the type of colic that the horse is suffering in a more general manner. But if the first treatment fails to improve the horse’s condition, then further examination will be undertaken to look for a more specific cause. Here are some of the common causes of colic:

1. Inflammation

Inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract, also known as colitis, or inflammation of the abdominal cavity (peritonitis), can be the cause of horse colic. These inflammatory illnesses are often brought about by infectious diseases or other underlying conditions.


2. Intestinal Strangulation

If the intestines become entrapped or rotate on themselves, it will prevent feces and food from passing through and will even block the flow of blood.


3. Infarction

Tissue death of the intestine caused by a poor supply of blood.


4. Ulcers

When the lining of the gastrointestinal tract begins to erode, it can impede gastrointestinal function and cause pain.


5. Obstruction

Several things, such as dehydration and worms, can cause fecal matter to harden up, which makes it harder to pass through the intestine and can easily cause blockages.


6. Gas

It seems incredibly simple, but if gas builds up enough, it will stretch out the intestine and cause discomfort or pain.

Brown horse with colic
Image Credit: sirastock, Shutterstock

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Horse Colic Symptoms

Throughout all the different causes and types of colic, the symptoms generally remain pretty similar. All of the following symptoms can be displayed on their own or in conjunction with other symptoms. This list isn’t exhaustive, but these are some of the most common symptoms you’re likely to see from a horse with colic.

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Excessive rolling
  • Laying down too much
  • Defecates infrequently
  • Lack of appetite
  • Lack of thirst
  • Pulse over 50 beats per minute
  • Absence of noises from the gut
  • Checking their flank repeatedly
  • Stretching like they’re trying to urinate
  • Pawing at the ground

Diagnosing Colic

sick horse

If your horse is exhibiting symptoms of colic, you’ll need to be able to identify them very quickly so you know how to proceed. Remember, colic could be a case of life or death, so if you believe your horse might have colic, swift action must be taken.

Your first step is to know all of the symptoms, which we’ve just discussed in the last section. Should your horse display any of these symptoms, you’ll want to start taking action. It will be up to your veterinarian to diagnose the type of colic your horse has and recommend a treatment, but you’ll also want to be able to aid your vet.

You’ll want to get an emergency kit ready for your horse. One necessary item in this kit is a stethoscope, which will allow you to listen to your horse’s gut and see if it’s making the appropriate noises. A horse’s gut should constantly make noise that sounds like it’s gurgling or bubbling. If you don’t hear any noise, it’s a bad sign, and something that your vet should be informed of.

Beyond just listening to your horse’s gut, you’ll also want to learn how to take its vital signs and have the necessary equipment to do so. This includes its temperature, respiratory rate, heart rate, and mucous membrane color. Knowing these things before arriving can help your vet formulate a diagnosis so you can take faster action, which might save your horse’s life.


Determining the Cause of Colic

The horse needs to undergo a basic physical examination in order to determine the most likely cause of its colic. If you haven’t already taken the horse’s vitals for your vet on the way over, that will be the first step. Your vet may repeat this part even if you did take the horse’s vitals.

Next, you’ll have to go through a series of detailed questions outlining the horse’s recent behavior. This includes recent activities, exercise, foods, reactions, and more. The answers to all of these questions can provide some insight into what might have gone wrong.

Your vet will likely want to perform a rectal exam next. Before doing so, your horse will probably be given medications to make it more comfortable by relieving its pain and possibly even sedating it. A rectal exam will allow your vet to inspect parts of the gastrointestinal tract for a more thorough assessment.

Another option that may be used in lieu of or in conjunction with a rectal exam is a nasogastric (NG) tube; a long tube made of plastic that goes into your horse’s stomach through its nose and esophagus. With the NG tube, the vet can tell if there’s any fluid or gas built-up in the stomach, remove it, and even administer treatments like mineral oil or other lubricants.

In some rare cases, vets might even do a belly tap called an abdominocentesis. This allows them to collect fluid that has accumulated in the horse’s abdominal cavity and analyze it.


Treatment

vet and horse
Image Credit: lgctr, Shutterstock

Obviously, with the multitude of different types of colic and so many underlying causes, there has to be a wide range of treatments. Each type of colic will have a different manner of treatment, which is what can make colic so difficult to deal with.

In almost every case, analgesics are given to help reduce the pain that the horse is experiencing. This abdominal pain can be intense, but medications like xylazine or Banamine can help.

NG tubes can be used to remove fluids and gas that have built-up in the stomach. This relieves the pressure since horses rarely ever vomit. For horses in shock or that are severely dehydrated, IV fluids might be needed.

For horses with an impaction, lubrications will be administered to help dislodge the feces so they can begin moving again. This is often done with mineral oil or another lubricant. Laxatives can also be used. Generally, you’ll need to refrain from feeding the horse until it defecates; an indication that the horse’s system is returning to normal.

If the bowel is twisted or turned, surgery might be necessary. In such cases, earlier intervention means a higher chance of a better outcome. If intervention occurs too late, surgery outcomes might not be as positive.

Though most cases of colic can be cured, that’s not always so. In the worst cases, euthanasia is required.


Recovering from Colic

love for horse

After a bout of colic has been treated, your horse is going to need to take it easy for a while. You’ll need to follow your vet’s advice carefully. They should advise you on what medications your horse needs to be taking and how often. Moreover, they should be able to inform you about the proper feeding levels and how to return to activities.

Make sure to keep a close eye on your recovering horse for any signs of abdominal pain. This could mean that the colic has returned or was never completely cured. It’s a good idea to keep checking for regular gut noises, heart rate, and breathing rate, to ensure your horse’s vitals remain at healthy levels


How to Prevent Colic

Though there are many causes of colic, some basic preventative measures can help prevent any type of colic from occurring.

Dehydration can easily lead to colic, so you want to ensure your horse always has access to as much clean water as they need. This might require special consideration in the winter if you live in a cold region. Horses usually won’t drink ice-cold water, which is part of why they’re more likely to develop impaction colic in winter.

Your horse’s diet also plays a big role in gut health. Too much grain with too little roughage like hay or grass can be a cause of colic. By feeding your horse mainly hay or letting it graze and limiting the amount of grain or pellets it eats can go a long way toward preventing colic.

If your horse is unable to properly grind its food while chewing, the larger chunks can create blockages which can lead to colic. So, make sure to get regular dental checkups for your horse. If any of its teeth are missing or have sharp points, it could prevent your horse from chewing properly.

Internal parasites can also be a cause of colic. These vary in different regions and environments, so you’ll want to consult with your vet about the best way to control them. Regular deworming can also prevent the intestine from getting damaged and will be a major deterrent to colic.

Horses, like humans, are creatures of habit. If you throw off their schedule, it can cause undue stress that can lead to issues like colic. Try to keep their schedule consistent and only make changes gradually and with care.

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Conclusion

Colic is an umbrella term that simply means your horse is experiencing abdominal pain. There is a wide range of root causes and just as many symptoms. You should try to remember the symptoms so you can always tell if a horse starts to develop colic. Sometimes, this condition is deadly. Horses who get the fastest intervention have the best chance of success. So, make sure you know how to check your horse’s vitals, remember the symptoms of colic, and always have the number of a veterinarian on hand who can help if things get serious.


Featured Image: anjajuli, Shutterstock

Dean Eby

An avid outdoorsman, Dean spends much of his time adventuring through the diverse terrain of the southwest United States with his closest companion, his dog, Gohan.  He gains experience on a full-time journey of exploration. For Dean, few passions lie closer to his heart than learning.  An apt researcher and reader, he loves to investigate interesting topics such as history, economics, relationships, pets, politics, and more.