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Keep Your Horse Healthy and Learn How to Recognize Colic

Coic in Horses

Resting is normal, but if you see your horse repeatedly lie down and get up, or if he’s assumed an odd position, he may be colicking. | Photo Courtesy of Eleanor Kellon, PhD

The word “colic” strikes fear in ever horse owner’s heart. While we’ve come a long way in understanding, treating, and reducing the risk of colic, it’s still something that can take your horse’s life.  Eleanor Kellon, VMD, writes about how how recognize the symptoms of colic and what to expect when your horse develops colic:

Colic is abdominal pain that can have many causes. Basically, a problem with any of the organs in the abdomen can cause abdominal pain — liver, spleen, urinary tract, re- productive tract, or intestines. The vast majority of colics are caused by problems in the intestinal tract, but because the symptoms are largely nonspecific, only a veterinary exam can tell you what’s causing the problem.


To learn more about horse colic, download our FREE guide—How to Help Your Horse Survive Colic: Advances in diagnosis and treatment increase your horse’s chances for a swift and complete recovery.


Colic Symptoms

Your horse will “tell” you his belly is hurting in a variety of ways. Some of these are fairly specific for abdominal problems; others are not.

• Kicking at the belly. Unless your horse is being bothered by flies, this is a fairly specific symptom.

• Turning to look at and/or biting at the belly or flank. Your horse may rest quietly, or may alternate between lying flat and lying on his sternum. • Restlessness. Your horse may lie down and get up repeatedly, or pace.

• Refusing to drink. Your horse may nose at the water, but not drink.

• Grunting or groaning. Horses are usually more likely to do this when they’re down. This symptom may also be present with chest pain. Some horses may lift their lip or grind their teeth.

• Pawing at the ground. This behavior may indicate more severe pain than the previous signs.

• Rolling and/or thrashing when down. This behavior indicates severe pain. Foals will often lie on their backs with their feet in the air.

• Change in manure. Look for no/less manure, diarrhea, change in size of the fecal balls, and manure covered with mucus (which will look like a veil).

• Gut changes. These include excessive gas production, abnormal abdominal sounds, or a complete lack of sound. Listen for gut sounds that are obviously louder than normal and can be heard without a stethoscope. (Your veterinarian will also use a stethoscope to detect other abnormalities in the intestinal sounds, including no sound at all.)

• Abnormal postures. These include standing stretched out or sitting on the haunches like a dog.

• Changes in mouth and gum color. Look for abnormally pale, or abnormally red or dark gums, or failure to regain color when pressed upon.

• Nonspecific signs. These include any- thing that might tell you your horse is distressed, such as depression, poor appetite, sweating, increased pulse rate, and rapid breathing.

Action Steps

Here are four action steps to take if you suspect your horse is suffering from colic.

Step 1. Call the vet. Always call your veterinarian if you think your horse has colic. Depending on the information you give your vet about the history and symptoms, he or she can decide if your horse needs to be seen right away. Either way, your vet will be alerted to the problem and can tell you what to do until he or she arrives.

Step 2. Stay calm. Colic is a painful and frightening condition for your horse. When in the throes of pain, even the most mild- mannered companion can become a raging monster. To help reassure your horse, try to keep a calm exterior. You’re right to feel scared or helpless, but try to keep your own negative emotions in check, and instead focus your energy on your horse’s needs.

Step 3. Walk your horse. With mild spasmodic colics, try walking or even longeing your horse. Light exercise may be all it takes to get his moving well again. However, this is a judgment call for your vet to make.

Step 4. Avoid drugs. Never give your horse any pain-relieving drugs without your vet’s knowledge and instructions to do so. These can mask symptoms enough that your vet won’t get a true impression of what’s going on with the horse.

What to Expect

When your veterinarian arrives, he or she will first conduct a general physical exam, including careful monitoring of your horse’s chest and abdomen with the stethoscope. If your horse is very agitated or distressed, your vet will likely give your horse pain-relieving drugs.

Your vet will then pass a stomach tube to see whether there’s any fluid buildup on your horse’s stomach and upper intestinal tract. This can happen when there’s a blockage or a twisted/displaced section of bowel. It’s important to relieve that pressure on the stomach so it doesn’t rupture.

Next, your vet will do a rectal exam to feel for a distended bowel, a displaced bowel, or impactions. He or she may also put a needle into your horse’s lower abdomen to attempt to retrieve some of the fluid surrounding the bowel. This will be collected into a tube for laboratory analysis and will also give your vet clues to your horse’s condition.

Depending on your vet’s findings, and the information you’re able to give, you and your vet will decide whether to treat your horse there or refer him to a surgical hospital. A referral doesn’t automatically mean your horse will have surgery, but it does give you more options in case the situation worsens.

Some cases need more sophisticated diagnostic procedures to determine the best plan of action. Other cases require more intensive medical therapy than might be available at your barn.

Types of Colic

Any condition involving an abdominal organ will cause colic symptoms. It doesn’t have to involve the bowel. However, if your horse is showing colic symptoms, he probably has an intestinal problem. Here’s a rundown of five colic types.

Spasmodic (“gas”) colic. This is thesimplest type of colic. When this hap- pens, a segment of intestine isn’t moving normally. Gas starts to build up, and the horse gets uncomfortable. The exact sequence of events is usually not clear. There are several potential causes of irritation to the bowel, including parasites, digestive upset from a new feed, toxins in a feed, temporary displacement of a section of the bowel, partial obstructions (incomplete impaction), and even irritation from sand/dirt in the gut.

Treatment: Spasmodic colic treated by medications that relieve the spasms and by walking. Your horse might need more than one dose of medication, but this type of colic generally responds to treatment.

Impaction. Impaction is a common cause of colic. Blockages may occur due to large numbers of parasites, or because a section of bowel has been damaged and is sluggish. The most likely cause of impaction is inadequate fluid in the bowel, which slows the movement of feed through the gastrointestinal tract, causing the contents to start backing up. Impactions can also be caused by enteroliths (stones that can form in the intestinal tract) or by sand buildup.

Treatment: Impactions rarely require surgery, but clearing them may take any- where from a day to even a week. Pain medications, such as Banamine, will help relieve your horse’s discomfort.

To clear the impaction, your veterinarian will administer mineral oil or stool softeners, fluids, and electrolytes via stomach tube. Fluids may also be given intravenously to help rehydrate your horse. Some vets use enemas to help break up the blockages. However, some impactions may be too extensive to break up without surgery, so you and your vet will want to closely monitor your horse’s progress. Horses with large enteroliths will need surgery.

• Enteritis. Enteritis is an inflammation of the bowel, usually caused by some type of infectious organism.

Treatment: Enteritis doesn’t require surgical treatment, but often the horse is in so much pain that surgery is performed in cast there’s something going on that requires it. Once it’s clear what the problem is, the treatment becomes intensive fluid therapy and antibiotics, plus antiinflammatories. Grass is the ideal food for a horse with an impaction, and regular walking or turnout will be encouraged. Otherwise, vets vary in their feeding recommendations. Soupy meals of soaked hay pellets or beet pulp are usually recommended rather than dry hay.

Abdominal abscesses. Although not terribly common, abdominal abscesses can form in the wall of bowel as a result of a partial puncture, or anywhere in the abdominal cavity after an infection in which bacteria were present in the blood (such as strangles or pigeon fever).

Treatment: Horses with abdominal abscesses will need surgery.

Loss of blood supply. Most serious are problems that involve the loss of blood supply to a section of bowel. This can occur if the bowel becomes twisted, if a segment of bowel telescopes inside another segment (called intussusception), or if the bowel moves from its normal position and becomes trapped. Lipomas are fatty tumors on stalks that can form in the abdomen and may become wrapped around the bowel like a bolero, shutting it off.

Treatment: A horse with a displaced or twisted section of bowel whose blood-sugar supply is compromised will need surgery to correct the problem.

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