Colic in Horses: Signs, Causes and Treatment

5 min read

Reviewed and updated for accuracy on December 20, 2019, by Dr. Jennifer Coates, DVM

Colic is a relatively common disorder of the equine digestive system. But “colic” simply means “abdominal pain,” which can have a variety of causes and treatments.

Colic also varies greatly in severity.

For example, a horse may have a mild bout of abdominal pain that is resolved with a single dose of medication. Other times, colic may necessitate surgery, or unfortunately, euthanasia.

All instances of colic in horses should be treated as a potential emergency.

If you suspect that your horse is displaying colic symptoms, seek immediate veterinary assistance.

Symptoms of Horse Colic

Although there are various forms of equine colic, most horses display some combination of the following symptoms:

  • Anxiety or depression

  • Pawing at the ground

  • Looking at their flank

  • Rolling or wanting to lie down

  • Lack of or infrequent defecation

  • Poor appetite and water intake

  • Excessive sweating

  • Abnormally high pulse rate (over 50 beats per minute)

  • Lack of normal gut noises

  • Stretching out as if to urinate

Causes of Colic in Horses

There are many causes of colic in horses, so veterinarians will focus on trying to categorize the type of colic a horse has rather than identifying a specific cause.

If the horse fails to respond to initial treatment, then a more specific diagnosis will probably be necessary.

Colic can be caused by:

  • Gas - Excessive accumulation of gas stretches the intestines, causing pain.

  • Obstruction or impaction - Fecal material becomes hard and difficult to pass due to dehydration, the presence of large numbers of worms, ingestion of sand, etc.

  • Strangulation - The intestines rotate or become entrapped, which prevents the flow of food and feces and blocks blood flow.

  • Infarction - Poor blood supply to the intestine, which leads to tissue death.

  • Inflammatory - Infectious diseases or other conditions can cause gastroenteritis or colitis (inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract) or peritonitis (inflammation of the abdominal cavity).

  • Ulcers - Erosions of the lining of the gastrointestinal tract can lead to pain and poor gastrointestinal function.

Diagnosis

You should become familiar with the symptoms of colic so you can quickly identify the condition.

Know how to take your horse’s vital signs (temperature, heart rate, respiratory rate and mucous membrane color) so you can relay this important information to your veterinarian as they’re on their way to meet you.

Get a stethoscope to keep in your emergency kit so you can listen for gut sounds. Routinely examine your horse when he is healthy so you can more easily identify when something is wrong.

Once your veterinarian has arrived, they will perform a variety of diagnostic procedures to confirm colic and further characterize its cause and severity.

Assessing the Cause and Severity of a Horse’s Colic

First, the veterinarian will check the horse's pulse, temperature, respiratory rate, mucous membrane color and gut sounds as part of a complete physical examination.

Your vet will ask you detailed questions on the horse’s most recent behavior, diet, activity level, etc.

The vet may give the horse medications to relieve pain and provide sedation. This will make the horse more comfortable and make it safer to perform additional diagnostics.

The veterinarian will probably perform a rectal exam, which allows the vet to palpate parts of the horse’s gastrointestinal tract to determine if they are in an unusual location or dilated due to a buildup of gas. The amount and quality of feces present in the rectum can also be evaluated.

The vet may also insert a nasogastric (NG) tube. This is a long plastic tube that is inserted through the horse’s nostril and down the esophagus, into the stomach. This allows the vet to determine whether fluid or gas is building up in the stomach, remove them if they are, and administer treatments such as water and electrolytes or mineral oil or other lubricants/laxatives.

Occasionally, a vet may perform an abdominocentesis (belly tap) to collect and analyze fluid that has accumulated in the abdominal cavity of the horse.

Treatment of Colic in Horses

Depending on the type of colic a horse has, different forms of treatment will be necessary.

Analgesics such as flunixin meglumine (Banamine) and detomidine or xylazine are used in almost every colic case to help control the abdominal pain that can be quite severe.

A nasogastric tube may also be used to relieve pressure in the stomach, giving gas and fluids a way to exit since horses almost never vomit. IV fluids may be necessary if the horse is dehydrated or in shock.

If the horse is thought to be suffering from an impaction, the goal of treatment is to get feces moving again. Usually, mineral oil or another type of lubricant or laxative is given to help loosen and dislodge the impaction. The horse may be held off-feed until he has defecated, which indicates that normal gastrointestinal function is returning.

Surgery is required in some cases of colic, such as when the veterinarian suspects there is a twist in a loop of bowel. The outcome of surgical colic cases is dependent on how long the colic has been going on, the condition of the horse, and the location of the problem within the digestive tract.

Most colic cases can be resolved on the farm with medical intervention. Follow your vet’s recommendations with regards to medications, feeding and activity levels.
 

After recovery, return your horse to work slowly and watch carefully for any reoccurring signs of abdominal pain.

Prevention of Colic in Horses 

Occasionally, a horse will colic for no apparent reason. In such cases, the best prevention is to know your horse’s habits so that you can quickly identify a colic episode in the future.

Here are some preventative measures you can take:

  • Always make sure that your horse has access to fresh, clean water. In the winter, horses are more susceptible to impaction colic. They don’t like to drink ice cold water, and the water in the trough could be frozen so the horse has no access to it. In cold climates, regularly check to make sure there is no ice buildup in the water buckets, or install water heaters.

  • Ensure that your horse has enough access to roughage in his diet, such as pasture or hay. This part of a horse’s natural diet provides the bulk needed for proper gut motility. Limit feeding grain and/or pellets to the greatest extent possible.

  • Make sure your horse has regular dental checkups to ensure there are no sharp points or missing teeth that prevent him from grinding his food properly.

  • Talk to your veterinarian about the best way to control intestinal parasites.

  • In the spring, slowly introduce your horse to lush pasture. Do not let him out to graze full-time on new spring grass all at once.

Featured Image: iStock.com/ejesposito

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