Colic in Horses

Jennifer Rice, DVM
Written by:
Published: April 27, 2022
Colic in Horses

What is Colic in Horses?

The word “colic” in horse terms simply means abdominal pain. The source of the pain could originate from any location within the horse’s abdomen, from the intestines to an organ such as the stomach or liver. Most commonly, colic occurs due to part of the intestines becoming impacted or from being in an abnormal placement within the abdomen.

Colic is one of the most common emergencies seen in horses, which is why it is very important to understand what it is, the common colic signs, and what to do.

Types of Colic

Horses have long gastrointestinal tracts that are mostly unattached inside the horse's abdomen. This can lead to colic due to displacement or entrapment from part of the intestinal tract moving to a location inside the abdomen that is abnormal.

Other types of colic include:

  • Impaction colic

  • Gas colic

  • Spasmodic colic (overexcitement of intestinal contractions)

  • Enteritis/infection

  • Strangulation

Symptoms of Colic in Horses

Horses experiencing colic may exhibit the following signs:

  • Looking at sides

  • Biting or kicking flank

  • Pawing the ground or air

  • Laying down and/or rolling

  • Fecal balls small, dry, or not produced

  • Poor appetite 

  • Change in drinking behavior

  • Increased heart rate 

  • Abnormal breathing

  • Sweating

  • Restlessness

  • Dullness or lethargy

  • Tacky or dry gums

  • Abnormal colored gums

Causes of Colic in Horses

Horses may colic for a wide variety of reasons, depending on a number of factors and predispositions, such as age and lifestyle. For example, a geriatric horse is more likely to colic due to a mass causing a strangulation of the intestines, which leads to a blockage of the gastrointestinal tract. Young horses are more likely to colic due to an impaction from worms if they have not been dewormed appropriately.

Risk factors that could lead to colic include:

  • Changes in diet (grain or hay)

  • Changes in routine or exercise

  • Weather changes

  • Geriatric horses

  • Young horses

  • High parasite infestation

  • Sand ingestion 

  • Overweight 

  • High grain diets/low forage

  • Long periods between forage/feeding

  • Decrease in water intake

  • Dental issues

  • Long-term use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications

  • Stress

How Veterinarians Diagnose Colic in Horses

Your veterinarian will be able to diagnose colic based on history, exam findings, and diagnostic tests. The most common signs a veterinarian will look for to diagnose colic will be signs of abdominal pain along with an elevated heart rate. The veterinarian will also want to pass a nasogastric tube through the horse's nose to the stomach to check for any reflux or backup of fluid that can signify intestinal blockage.

Another important diagnostic the veterinarian will want to perform is rectal palpation. By palpating through the rectum, the veterinarian is able to assess several organs and feel for any abnormalities, including an intestinal blockage or impaction.

Further diagnostic tests that may be recommended. An abdominocentesis is performed to obtain fluid from the abdomen in order to assess for intestinal damage. An ultrasound may be used to look at internal organs. Lastly, a complete blood count and blood chemistry may be performed to evaluate organ function and inflammation. 

Treatment of Colic in Horses

In order to appropriately treat a horse for colic, the underlying medical cause for the colic symptoms must be identified. Medical treatment may be performed at the farm, or it may be recommended to take the horse to a hospital for further evaluation, 24-hour care, and possible surgery.

Medical treatment for colic may include non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication such as banamine (flunixine meglumine) to alleviate pain and inflammation. The administration of fluids, electrolytes, and/or mineral oil via the nasogastric tube placed in the horse's stomach may also help. If the horse does not improve with medications or treatments given on the farm, then hospital or surgical care may be required for treatment.

Colic surgery requires the horse to go under general anesthesia and have abdominal exploratory surgery to find and potentially fix the cause of the horses' colic symptoms. Colic surgery may not be possible for all horses due to the ability to get a horse to a hospital in a short amount of time and cost. Colic surgery can average between $5,000-$10,000 depending on the complications and severity of the colic. In severe colic cases, the recommendation may be euthanasia due to the horse having a very poor to guarded prognosis of recovery. 

Recovery and Management of Colic in Horses

Recovery and management of colic all depends on the severity and medical reason for the colic episode. If the colic episode was minor and able to be resolved with minor medical treatment on the farm, the horse may be back to their normal lifestyle within a few days. If the horse required hospitalization and surgery, it could take weeks to months to recover. Typically, after a colic episode, the veterinarian will implement a slow refeeding schedule to make sure they have completely recovered and are not showing any more colic symptoms before they are allowed to go back to their normal feeding and exercise program. 

Prevention of Colic in Horses

Reduce your horse’s risk of developing colic with the following recommendations:

  • Access to fresh water at all times

  • Pasture turnout

  • Avoid feeding on the ground in sandy areas

  • Feed grain and any type of pelleted feed only when necessary

  • Monitor for colic symptoms especially during feed, exercise, or routine changes

  • Routine dental care at least once a year by the veterinarian

  • Routine parasite prevention: fecal egg count 1-2 per year as recommended by veterinarian along with a routine deworming program

  • Monitor any horses that have colicked previously, broodmares for the first two months after foaling, as well as horses taking any nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories such as bute or banamine

Colic in Horses FAQs

What happens to a horse with colic?

A horse that is experiencing colic will have pain associated with their abdomen. This pain can be mild or severe depending on the underlying source of the pain. Often the owner will notice their horse showing colic symptoms such as pawing the ground, laying down and rolling, kicking or biting their abdomen, and not eating. 

What should I do if my horse is colicking?

If you suspect your horse is colicking, call your veterinarian right away. If your horse is actively lying down and wanting to roll, your veterinarian may ask you to try to keep the horse from lying down by hand walking. The veterinarian may also ask you if you have a prescription medication called banamine (flunixine meglamine) paste that you can give your horse orally until the vet can get there.

How can a vet tell what is causing colic in my horse?

The vet can tell the cause of colic in your horse by getting a good history, physical exam, and performing diagnostic tests such as nasogastric tube intubation (placing a stomach tube in the horse to check for reflux signifying a blockage) and rectal palpation to further evaluate internal abdominal organs. 

Can a horse survive colic?

Yes—a horse can survive and recover from colic. Recovery time depends on the severity and cause of the colic episode and the ability to start swift treatment.

How much does colic surgery cost?

Colic surgery can cost on average anywhere from $5,000-$10,000 depending on the exploratory surgery involved. The cost can easily escalate if there are any complications and/or extended hospital stay.

Can I prevent my horse from getting colic?

Yes—there are ways to help prevent colic by promoting an overall healthy lifestyle with low stress. Consistent veterinary/medical care with regular exams, deworming, and dental assessments are key. Ask your primary veterinarian if there are any other practices that you could implement to improve your horse's overall health and decrease risk of colic. 

Featured Image: iStock.com/anjajuli


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