Horse Colic – Symptoms & Treatment
A colicking horse is an emergency. I can’t be plainer than that.
As a horse owner you need to know what signs to be on the lookout for so you catch colic early.
Our Horse Colic – Symptoms & Treatment Guide will help you avoid a potentially deadly incident with your horse.
What is Colic?
The term colic simply means abdominal pain, so it is actually a sign of a problem rather than a diagnosis. Horse owners use it as a catch-all term to indicate any abdominal problem.
There are several types of colic:
It is often that we don’t actually know why the horse is colicking, and there seems to be no reason for it to be occurring. In mild cases where the colic doesn’t progress to a critical condition you may never know the reason why.
This does not mean that a mild case shouldn’t be treated seriously and immediately, as if left it can result in a far more serious case and a much worst outcome for the horse.
Possibly the most common type of colic is impaction colic, caused by a blockage in the large intestine. The blockage can be caused by any number of things most commonly undigested food, but can be a foreign body the horse has ingested eg. rubber or an accumulation of debris over a long period eg. sand.
This type of colic, if caught early, will often be relatively easy to resolve with appropriate treatment, assuming it is not a symptom of a more severe or complicated case.
This type refers to the spasms occurring in the intestines causing them to contract painfully. Often the owner will not know why this has occurred, but again as with all colic if the symptoms are noticed and treatment commenced early most horses’ respond well.
Again this is often a sign of another underlying problem which causes a gas build up within the caecum (pouch at the start of the large intestine) and/or the large intestine. It may also only be a build up of gas, either way the gas stretches the intestine causing pain.
Early treatment in all cases of colic is essential to achieving a positive outcome and gas colic is no exception.
This term refers to any inflammation of the small intestine (enteritis) or the large intestine (colitis). The inflammation is often caused by bacteria that either shouldn’t be there or dying bacteria that produce toxins causing the inflammation.
Other causes can be viruses or the excessive use of NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) or antibiotics which again kill bacteria causing inflammation.
Enteritis or Colitis are medical emergencies, they will not resolve themselves and require immediate veterinary attention.
The horse only has a small stomach and horses’ cannot vomit.
Gastric rupture occurs when the horse has gorged itself on a food product, traditionally this would be grain, and the stomach has burst.
With the advent of products like beet pulp which expands exponentially when damp/wet, gorging on this type of feed product is almost always fatal.
A less severe although also potentially life-threatening occurrence is gastric distention which is when the stomach is grossly distended but not to the point of rupture.
If you suspect your horse has gorged itself on a feed product contact your vet immediately.
Twisted Gut – Displacement, intersuseption or torsion
There are three different type of twisted gut, obviously you can’t see to know which one your horse may have and to be honest it doesn’t matter in the initial stages, as all three will require surgery to correct and again are medical emergencies.
Displacement – is when a segment of the intestine has moved within the abdomen to an unusual position
Intersusecption – is where the gut telescopes into an adjacent portion of the gut
Torsion (also called volvulvus) – occurs when a piece of the intestine twists.
Either of these three types usually causes complete blockage of the intestine and hence why surgery is required to correct it.
Regardless of the type of colic your horse has most horses’ will display common symptoms as follows:
Mild or early symptoms
- Slight anxiety or depression
- Pawing at the ground intermittently
- Looking at the flank
- Standing stretched out
- Playing in the water bucket but not drinking
- Lack of defecation
- Lack of appetite
- Mild sweating
- Abnormally high pulse rate (over 50 beats per minute)
- Loud gut sounds
- Standing frequently as if to urinate
- Getting up and lying down repeatedly
- Repeatedly curling the upper lip
Advanced or more acute symptoms
If you have a very serious case of colic or if you have missed the early signs and your horse has progressed to showing any of these signs you need a vet immediately.
- Signs of shock including dark mucous membranes
- Absence of gut sounds
- Obvious severe and continuous pain
- Excessive sweating
- Pawing at the ground repeatedly
- Kicking at the abdomen
- Lack of defecation
- Chronic pain in the abdomen
- Rolling or wanting to lie down for extended periods
- Racing, abnormally high pulse rate – over 60 beats per minute
- Drop in temperature
- Traces of blood in faeces (if passing)
I can not stress this enough, if you even remotely suspect your horse has colic CALL YOUR VET. Even if you live remotely, as I do, call your vet and seek advice even if they will be unable to attend your horse. www.horsechannel.com did a quick Q & A on when to call the vet, with some excellent links to other articles on colic as well.
Take a few minutes to assess the situation so you have the answers to the questions your vet will ask you.
Do a quick physical examination of your horse. You should know your own horses’ normal vital signs eg. temperature, pulse and respiration rates. If you do not know specifically for your horse, the average healthy horse rates are below:
- Temperature: 37.5C – 38.5C
- Pulse: 38 – 40 beats per minute
- Respiration Rate: 8 – 15 breaths per minute
- Capillary refill: within 2 seconds, also check colour of gums
- Dehydration: skin return within 1 second
Have a think about your horses’ behaviour and activities over the past few days – has he been drinking and eating normally, frequency and consistency of defecation, any changes to feed type or routine, any new medications?
While you wait for the vet it is not necessary to continuously walk your horse as was recommended in days gone by. This will only tire your horse out even more. The only exception to this is if your horse is at the stage of continuous and violent rolling you will need to keep the horse moving so he can’t do this and risk a twisted gut.
It can be very difficult to stop a horse from rolling if they are intent on doing so; and if this is the case try to ensure the surface is as soft as possible, so the horse does the least amount of damage to himself.
Always remember your own safety first. If you are injured who will look out for your horse?
A distressed horse can do strange things so always consider where you are in relation to your horse and try to anticipate your horses’ actions so you can keep out of his way.
Remove all food from the horse at least until the vet arrives, in the event that the gut has already twisted or there is an obstruction additional food and therefore pressure on the intestine and stomach will just make the problem worse.
Do not administer any drugs while waiting for your vet. Depending on the type of drug this may mask some symptoms and make a clear diagnosis more difficult if not impossible. After the vet has examined your horse they will administer what is required.
Your vet will initially listen for gut sounds and take a current set of vital signs to assess the horses’ deterioration if any.
They may undertake a rectal exam to palpate/feel the intestine for blockages or twists and will probably administer a water/electrolyte mix via gastronasal tube (also called stomach tune).
Various painkillers will also be administered to keep the horse as comfortable as possible.
Often colic can be treated successfully at this point, although very close supervision of your horse will be required as colic can look almost passed and then reoccur with little warning.
If your vet determines that the gut is twisted, they will recommend surgery as soon as possible. Depending on the vet and how equipped their facilities are they may refer you to an equine specialist.
Obviously depending on what the original cause of the colic was, it may be self-explanatory what measures you need to take to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
Locally we have many cases of sand colic. Good husbandry practices such as feeding horses’ off the ground and treating regularly with psyllium husks or a proprietary product to help remove sand as well as a yearly drench are all good preventative measures for sand colic.
General good horse keeping habits which will minimise your horses’ chance of coming down with colic are:
- Feed at regular intervals – so if like me you work full time, I feed my horses’ at 6.30am and again at 5.30pm during the week. Just because I don’t have to go to work on the weekends doesn’t mean I can sleep in till 10am and have my horses’ waiting well past their normal feed time, without any forage.I aim to keep within an hour either side of the normal time; so if we are travelling and have to leave early they may be fed at 5.30am; if I do have a sleep in they may have to wait till 7.30am but never any longer.
- Do not make sudden changes to feed – if you wish to introduce a new feed do so gradually over a period of two weeks. Likewise if you are removing a feed don’t just stop completely reduce the amount you are feeding over a few weeks.
- Always fresh clean water – this should go without saying but if your horse becomes dehydrated you will greatly increase the risk of colic. Some horses’ do not like the taste of new/different water and will refuse to drink, if you have a horse like this you can cart your own water if you are going away. Or there are some very good water enhancers available such as Drink Up, which I use regularly and my horses’ love.
- Keep hay fresh – do not feed mouldy or dusty hay. Your hay should smell fresh and sweet. Also, keep hay off the ground. Horses that forage nip off the grass or feed above ground level but if they have to snuffle around in dirt or sand for pieces of hay they will pick up particles as they do so.You should be feeding an adequate amount of hay also, this should make up the bulk of your horses’ diet. If you would like more information on this please check out our What to Feed My Horse Blog.
- Put in place a regular deworming program – horses’ should be wormed regularly every 6 – 12 weeks depending on the type of wormer you are using. If you are not sure what sort of wormer you should be giving your horse jump over and have a look at our Worming Article.
Unfortunately colic is a real and present danger when you own a horse and something that you need to be aware of and prepared for.
We hope our Horse Colic – Symptoms & Treatment Guide has given you some basic knowledge on what to look for, and what to do if you are ever faced with these symptoms.
We’d love for you to share any experiences you have had with colic and also if this article has raised any questions please use the comment section below and we’d love to help you out.