Understanding Equine Colic
Symptoms, Treatment and Prevention
By Hayley Kosolofski
Most horse owners have their own personal stories to tell about colic — but chances are that everyone’s tales about the dreaded disease are different.
Episodes of colic can range from a mild case of abdominal pain that resolves with pain medications to a life-threatening event that requires emergency surgical treatment. With such a variable condition, it can be difficult for horse owners to determine the right course of action for their horse’s situation, says Dr. Carolina Duran, a resident in large animal internal medicine at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM).
As Duran explains, colic is generally defined as pain that comes from the abdomen or any structure in the abdomen. Colic is typically caused by a problem in the gastrointestinal tract, but other organs can be the source of the pain. As well, horses that are tying-up or foundering (experiencing laminitis) can often show clinical signs that are similar to colic.
Colic can affect any age, breed, or sex of horse, and in many cases, the cause of the condition is never determined.
Mild cases of colic can be difficult to identify. Affected horses may be uninterested in food or seem to be dull or lethargic. More classic signs of colic are sweating, pawing, and watching the flank as well as lying down and rolling. Some horses may curl their lips, arch their necks, or posture as if to urinate.
To reduce the risk of colic, horses should have regular dental checkups, an appropriate deworming program, and a diet that consists mainly of forage spread over several feedings per day. Dr. Carolina Duran (left), a resident in large animal internal medicine at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM), is shown performing a dental exam, assisted by Dr. Devon Wilson. Photo: Christina Weese
“If your horse is colicky, you should call your veterinarian. But before you do so, check your horse and gather some information,” says Duran. She adds that the more information horse owners can provide, the better idea veterinarians will have of the horse’s situation.
Horse owners can gather the following details for their practitioner:
- Take your horse’s vital parameters including heart rate, respiratory rate, and temperature.
- Look in your horse’s stall to see if it has passed any feces. If so, note the consistency and the amount.
- Think back over the past day or two; have there been any recent changes that could explain your horse’s colic such as changes in feed or a recent deworming?
“The other very important thing is that you shouldn’t give any drugs without asking your veterinarian,” says Duran. Pain medications can mask the signs of colic and make it difficult to determine how the horse is progressing. If you have given drugs to your horse, Duran says to tell your veterinarian which drug and which dose was given.
While waiting for your veterinarian to arrive, Duran says to remember to stay calm. Remove feed and straw bedding from your horse’s stall and make sure the animal is in a safe place since a horse in pain may be unaware of its surroundings. If possible, hand walk your horse to stimulate gut motility and to prevent the animal from rolling.
It’s also a good idea to prepare your trailer in case your horse needs to go to the veterinary clinic. If you don’t have transportation, contact neighbours and friends to see if anyone is available to help. Before any emergency, Duran says horse owners should have a plan in place for transporting a horse to the local veterinary clinic.
The veterinarian may perform an ultrasound exam to help determine what is going on inside the horse’s abdomen. Dr. Fernando J. Marqués, a specialist in large animal internal medicine at the WCVM, is shown carrying out an ultrasound examination on a horse. Photo: Christina Weese
Before loading your horse, Duran recommends removing the trailer’s dividers since some horses tend to do better with more space — but this varies from horse to horse. Most importantly, do not ride in the trailer with the horse, as doing so will put you at risk of being injured.
Your veterinarian will usually begin by performing a physical exam on your horse and reassessing its vital parameters. The clinician will then conduct a rectal exam to help determine if there is something in the abdomen that can explain the colic.
Veterinarians often pass a tube through the horse’s nostril and into its stomach. The amount and type of fluid that is recovered from the stomach can help to determine the cause of the colic, and the tube can also relieve tension in the organ. Since horses cannot vomit, severe distension of their stomach puts them at risk of rupture.
“Depending on the results of the first assessment, the vet may also take a sample of abdominal fluid, which is called an abdominocentesis,” says Duran. “As well, when available and indicated, the veterinarian may perform an exam to try and find something in the abdomen that is going wrong.”
Based on results, your veterinarian will determine the most appropriate treatment for your horse and if it needs to be admitted into a veterinary hospital for further diagnostics and treatment. Some of the factors that your veterinarian will consider include the horse’s level of pain, its response to pain medications, and findings from the physical exam. For example, the physical exam may suggest a twisted or displaced gut that requires surgical treatment, explains Duran.
Impaction colic in winter months is often caused by the horse becoming dehydrated due to lower water consumption. A typical 1000 lb adult horse requires seven to ten gallons of fresh water each day, and horses should never be expected to meet their water needs by eating snow. Horses instinctively drink less in winter because they must expend additional energy to re-warm their tissues after losing heat from drinking cold water. Warming water or using insulated or heated buckets will encourage the horse to consume more water, which will help keep the digestive system hydrated to prevent colic. Photo: ©Shutterstock/Sari ONeal
“We can’t prevent colic, but what we can do is reduce the risk significantly with what we do, management-wise,” says Duran.
To help reduce the risk, she recommends feeding a diet of mainly forage, and when possible, try to avoid feeding concentrates. Make any changes in the diet or schedule slowly. Duran also points out that frequent feedings are better for horses than one large, single meal. Ask your veterinarian to regularly check your horse’s teeth and work with your clinician to develop an appropriate deworming strategy for your horse.
Most importantly, Duran says to remember that your veterinarian is always there for you — and don’t be afraid to call if you suspect that your horse may be showing signs of colic.
Hayley Kosolofski of Sherwood Park, Alberta, is a fourth-year veterinary student at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine.
Main Photo: The veterinarian will begin by physically examining the horse and assessing its vital signs including gut sounds, heart rate, temperature, and respiration rate. Credit: ©Shutterstock/Pirita