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Colic in Horses

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Lindsay Butzer, DVM
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Dr. Lindsay Butzer
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Colic, simply put, is when your horse has a bellyache. It's not a health condition, rather, it's a symptom that can be caused by several different problems, ranging from simple to life-threatening.
Between 4-10% of horses get colic each year, so there is a good chance that you will need to know how to recognize it, how to help relieve the pain, and when to seek veterinary care.
Though most cases are not serious, and resolve quickly with symptom management, colic can be lethal. It's one of the most common causes of premature death in horses, so you should always take it seriously.

What Exactly IS Colic In Horses?
Like all grazing animals, horses must eat constantly, so their digestive tract is constantly moving materials through their body.
Anything that disrupts their digestion, such as a buildup of gas or foreign matter, can lead to painful inflammation. Horses are unable to vomit, so it's especially difficult for their bodies to expel anything that may be wreaking havoc on their delicate digestive system.
In the majority of cases, symptoms resolve quickly without surgery. This is typically referred to as gas or spasmodic colic, in which abdominal pain seems to be caused by muscle spasms in the digestive tract. It could be brought on by stress from travel or weather changes, or no apparent reason at all. Though most cases of gas colic are not serious, veterinary treatment is recommended to prevent complications, as a mild case can become severe.
Colic in horses can also be caused by a blockage in the intestinal tract, known as impaction colic. The blockage could be made up of food that your horse has been unable to digest properly, especially if they do not get enough fiber or adequate water intake to help keep their bowels moving. A blockage could also be foreign matter, parasites, intestinal stones, sand, or even a tumor.
The minority of cases are caused by something more serious, like a twist in the horse's bowels. This can cut off blood flow to the digestive system, causing tissue death, and will be fatal to your horse in a matter of hours if they are not treated in surgery. Fortunately, most horses survive and completely recover from life-saving colic surgery.

What Are The Symptoms Of Colic In Horses?
Symptoms range from mild to severe, and all horses express abdominal pain in their own, unique ways.

In mild cases, you may notice:
  • Lifting the upper lip (Flehmen response)
  • Looking back at their flank
  • A lack of appetite
  • Excessive sweating
  • Biting or kicking their hind legs up towards their belly
  • Little or no gut sounds when you listen to your horse's belly with a stethoscope

When you notice mild symptoms, you'll want to keep a watchful eye on your horse and give your vet a call. Seemingly mild cases can take a quick turn for the worst, so you'll want to take your horse's symptoms seriously and treat every episode as an emergency.

If symptoms are severe or persist longer than 45 minutes, you should seek urgent veterinary care.

In severe cases, you may notice:
  • Restlessness - your horse may repeatedly get up, lie down and turn around
  • Stretching and changing positions as though attempting to relieve pressure
  • Throwing themselves to the ground and rolling around

Never give your horse medications unless under the instruction of your veterinarian. Medication can mask symptoms, making it harder for your vet to make a diagnosis once they arrive, and they may not be appropriate for your particular case. Simply remove all food and keep your horse safe while you call your vet.
While awaiting veterinary care, keep an eye on your horse's vital signs. Take their temperature, respiratory rate and heart rate. Are their gums unusually pale or dark in color? Also keep note of your horse's manure production. Has it decreased? Are they having diarrhea? Any extreme changes in your horse's vital signs can indicate that your horse needs emergency vet care.

How Is Colic Treated?
Even if you feel that your horse's colic is mild, it's best to call your veterinarian to confirm the diagnosis and try to find the root cause of your horse's discomfort. A rectal exam may be necessary to check for a buildup or blockage in your horse's lower large intestine.
If your veterinarian suspects spastic colic, may treat your horse with a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) like Banamine to relieve the pain. This often resolves the colic episode, though you will need to work with your veterinarian to prevent recurrence, as horses who suffer from one episode are likely to have another at some point.
In cases where colic is caused by impaction, your vet will likely use mineral oil to help clear your horse's digestive system. An impaction caused by parasites, food or foreign matter may dislodge after a dose of laxatives.
If your vet is unable to ease symptoms with a pain reliever or laxative, there may be a serious underlying cause such as torsion, or a twist in your horse's intestines that is preventing food and gas from passing through. This also prevents blood from flowing to the digestive tissue, which can cause death in just a few hours if not treated with surgery.

Preventing Colic In Horses
Though not all cases of colic are preventable, there are several ways you can reduce your horse's risk of suffering from an episode.
Starchy, grain-based diets have been linked to an increased risk of colic. Make sure your horse gets plenty of turn-out time with lots of access to quality forage. Remember, your horse's digestion system is designed for grazing, so feed small meals frequently to best accommodate it.
Regular deworming can also reduce instances of colic, as parasites can create intestinal blockages. Talk to your vet about the best deworming schedule for your horse.

Horse Dewormers
Routine dental care can also help prevent colic. If your horse is suffering from an unattended dental issue, they may not chew their food properly, which can lead to poor digestion.
Dehydration can also contribute to colic by causing impaction. Make sure your horse always has access to fresh, clean water. To encourage your horse to drink more water, you can try adding a salt block, which naturally induces thirst, or mixing in a flavor additive like apple juice.
Contrary to popular belief, allowing your horse to roll around on their back will not cause your horse's intestines to twist. While walking your horse can help get their digestive system moving again, it does not help in every case, and it's not necessary to do it excessively.