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Horse colic

Colic in horses is defined as abdominal pain, but is a clinical sign or a symptom rather than a diagnosis. The term colic can encompass all forms of gastro-intestinal conditions which cause pain or alter the normal function of the digestive system in some way. There are a variety of different causes of colic, some of which require surgical intervention and can prove fatal. Among domesticated horses in Western countries, colic is a major cause of premature death. It is important that any person who owns or works with horses is able to recognize the symptoms of colic and is able to determine whether or not a veterinarian must be called.

Types of Colic

  1. Obstruction colic
  2. Spasmodic colic
  3. Colic caused by parasites
  4. Displacement colic
  5. Impaction colic
  6. General abdominal pain with unknown causes

Obstruction colic

An obstruction in the gastrointestinal tract of a horse can cause obstruction colic. The obstruction may be an impaction of food or foreign material, blockage by parasites, and may also be the result of a twist in the intestinal tract. Sometimes obstruction colic can be treated by a veterinarian, although this may not be a viable option for many horse owners do to the extreme cost of colic surgery.

Spasmodic colic

Spasmodic colic, also referred to as gas colic, is the result of increased peristaltic contractions in the horse's gastrointestinal tract. It is also the result of gas buildup within the horse's digestive tract. With spasmodic colic horses may exhibit loose bowel movements and increased flatulence.

Colic caused by parasites

Parasites have also been known to cause colic in horses. It is most commonly seen in young horses as a result of a roundworm infection (Parascarus equorum). In some cases these parasites rupture the wall of the intestinal tract resulting in the death of the horse.

Displacement colic

Displacement colic occurs in horses whenever portion of the intestinal tract displaces over itself or telescopes. This is a very serious condition and requires the immediate attention of a veterinarian. Portions of the intestinal tract may die as a result of constricted or cut off circulation. A horse can be saved if a veterinarian is contacted in time, although some horse owners are unable to afford colic surgery.<

Impaction colic

Impaction colic is the obstruction of the gut by food material which is not moving along the gastrointestinal tract appropriately. It generally occurs in the large colon or cecum, rather than the small colon, so it is not truely a form of constipation. Impaction generally responds well to medical treatment, but more severe cases may not recover without surgery. If left untreated, severe impaction colic can be fatal.

General abdominal pain with unknown causes

Is sometimes the case that a veterinarian is not able to ascertain the cause of colic, or the exact cause is unclear.

Recognizing the symptoms of Colic

A horse may exhibit any of the following symptoms. It is important to recognize the difference between a symptom of colic, and natural horse behavior. For example, horses enjoy rolling around - it is a natural behavior for them. It is imperative that you can tell the difference between when a horse is rolling because they are in pain, or when they are rolling to simply scratch their back.

A list of symptoms generally associated with colic

  1. The horse is reluctant or refuses to eat;
  2. The horse may look at their sides, or turn and nip at their sides;
  3. The horse may kick at their abdomen with their back legs, paw with their forelegs, or stomp their feet;
  4. The horse appears to be stretching out abnormally when defecating or is straining to pass a bowel movement;
  5. The horse lies down and begins rolling and thrashing violently;
  6. Along with these other symptoms the horse's pulse and respiratory rate may increase (NOTE: the horse's temperature usually shouldn't increase with colic. If a horse is experiencing abdominal pain and also has a fever, seek a veterinarian's help immediately, as this is often an indication of an infection and may also be an indication of peritonitis).

Simple management steps that can help prevent colic

  1. Be sure that all feed is stored behind closed doors. If for some reason a horse manages to escape from their stall and gets into a feed bin or storage container, they can overload on carbohydrates resulting in colic.
  2. Do NOT allow horses access to any spoiled or moldy feed, stagnant water, or otherwise contaminated sustainance.
  3. Do NOT feed horses on the ground. This can result in the horse unintentionally eating dirt or sand resulting in sand colic.
  4. Do NOT feed or water horses immediately after hard work or exercise. Allow them plenty of time to cool down so that when they are allowed to drink, the temperature of the water isn't a shock to their system.
  5. DO feed horses at the same time every day. Horses have very sensitive digestive systems, and if their feeding routine is disrupted, even if only by an hour or two, it's enough for some horses to colic.
  6. DO deworm horses regularly. A good parasite control program can help prevent colic caused by parasites.

What to do if a horse colics

In the event that a horse colics, do not allow the horse to lie and roll as this may cause a displacement in the horse's gut, worsening the situation. Instead keep the horse on his or her feet and allow the horse to walk or stand. If the horse absolutely refuses to get up, or shows no signs of improvement within twenty to thirty minutes, call the veterinarian immediately. Banamine may be given to a horse intramuscularly (NOTE: Do NOT attempt to give a horse an injection unless you are familiar with the proper procedure). This may or may not help a horse, and is most helpful for spasmodic colic.

Sometimes a mare may colic after delivering a foal. This is normal, and can usually be treated with banamine. Do not be alarmed unless the colic is prolonged or appears to be severe.

In Conclusion

If you suspect a horse is colicking, then you now possess the essential information to determine if it's severe enough to warrant a call to the vet. In any case, it's better to be safe than sorry. If you don't have much experience with horses that colic, it's always better to call the vet to be safe, than to not call the vet and potentially lose your companion.