How serious is Colic in Horses?

The very mention of the word strikes fear in most horse owners. In this issue, we will try to explain what colic is, how it happens, what the main types are and if possible how to prevent the condition.

ColicĀ  – explanation

The word colic simply means pain associated with the abdomen. Usually, this pain originates from the intestines but other causes of abdominal pain that may be confused with intestinal colic are foaling, tying up, and kidney/bladder problems.

How serious is colic?

Colic is quite a serious condition. Horses can become quite painful and agitated relatively quickly depending on the colic type. While most cases can be treated medically, approximately five percent of cases may require surgical correction. If your horse is showing signs of very painful colic or showing signs of mild colic that is continuing or getting worse then a decision to call the vet should be made.

What are the signs?

The signs depend on the colic type and the severity of the changes occurring.

Examination of the heart in the colic patient.

Signs of mild colic include the following signs of discomfort. Pawing the ground with front foot. Repeatedly turning the head to look at the abdomen. Restlessness, getting up and down frequently. If the colic is more severe the signs are more dramatic. It will be obvious that the horse is in considerable pain. Signs that may be present are, Sweating, Rolling, Lying down, reluctance to stand up, Rapid respiratory rate, Elevated heart rate.

What are the main types of colic?

Spasmodic colic is the most common type of colic. In this colic, the intestines become overactive for some reason and it may even be possible to hear the increased rumbling from the abdomen. This type of colic may be caused by changes to the diet, inadequate deworming, teeth problems or changes in exercise patterns. While this colic can be very dramatic it usually responds quickly to medication. The next most common cause of colic is impactions of the large intestine. This is where the intestine gets blocked up with food material. Contributing factors for this to happen are sudden changes to the horse’s diet, reduction in exercise, maybe where a previously active horse has to be confined to the stable for box rest. Poor dental care, irregular feeding or where the horse suddenly starts to eat its bedding are other important factors. To avoid impactions always make sure feeding changes are made gradually and ensure the horse has always access to plenty of fresh water. Colic emanating from the stomach is most commonly associated with ulcers or distention. Stomach distention can be very painful and may occur after a rapid and excessive feed of grass or concentrates. Ulcers are more common a problem of young stock especially foals. These can be quite painful and should always be considered as a cause of colic in young foals especially when they are suffering from other concurrent diseases such as scour for example. Displacement of the intestines within the abdomen is quite rare but this can occur when a part of the intestine becomes trapped in the wrong part of the abdomen. Mares after foaling can be at an increased risk of getting this type of colic. Frequently these colics require surgical correction. By far the most painful and dramatic of the colic types is when a part of the gut gets twisted. This is very serious and usually requires surgical correction relatively quickly to save them.

Examination of the abdomen in the colic patient.

Veterinary assessment of the colic patient.

When your vet arrives he/she will question you on the events leading up to the colic episode in order to determine the most likely colic type your horse is experiencing. By auscultation of the abdomen, more information on the colic type will be obtained. Spasmodic colics are quite noisy whereas a twisted gut, for example, may render the abdomen silent. The heart rate will give a very good indication of how serious the colic is and will also give a good idea of prognosis. The more serious colics having very elevated heart rates. Your vet may also pass a stomach tube to investigate if there is an increase in stomach contents, which occurs in obstructions of the small intestine. An internal examination via rectal evaluation may yield an exact diagnosis of which colic type is present. Other aids to diagnosis, which are usually confined to surgical evaluation of the serious colic, include blood sampling, aspiration of abdominal fluid or x-rays. Based on this assessment a decision will be made on the best course of therapy. It may be necessary to re-evaluate the horse later as some colics can start as mild colics and progress to become quite serious.

How can colic be prevented?

It must be remembered that not all colic types can be prevented but certainly some management decisions can influence the incidence of certain types of colic. Most important is to have a regular worming schedule. Removing horses manure from paddocks has been shown to reduce worm burdens. It is also important to rotate the usage of different wormers as they do not all kill every worm type. Please ask your vet for recommendations on the best wormer to suit your situation. Make any dietary changes gradual. Provide a balanced diet. Avoid feeding from the ground in sandy areas as horses may get sand impactions. Ensure plenty of fresh clean water at all times. Pay particular attention to your horse’s teeth. Have them examined at least once every year by your vet. Keep up a regular exercise program for your horse. Sudden changes or irregular exercise patterns can predispose horses to colic. Watch that your horse does not eat its bedding. If it is, change to a different type.

In summary, colic will always remain a source of distress for the horse owner, however, with prompt attention and good management practices, most cases will have successful outcomes.

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