Colic in Horses
Colic is not a specific disease, but is a set of symptoms indicating abdominal pain in the horse. The pain may come from a variety of sources but the outward manifestations of these problems are very similar. Colic is always an urgent situation. An owner should call for veterinary advice at the first signs of trouble.

Early signs of colic may include not finishing a meal or acting more lethargic than normal during or after a ride. As discomfort increases, the horse may paw, look at his side, stretch out as if to urinate, or getup and down repeatedly. Sweating, shaking and rolling on the ground may follow.

The most common cause of colic is manure impaction in the large intestine. Other causes include intestinal gas, cramps or spasms, blood clots in the intestinal wall, sand collection in the bowel, intestinal stones or a displaced loop of bowel. Horses with kidney or bladder stones, certain infections, diarrhea and even mares with unusual heat cycles can present with colicky signs. Late term pregnant mares may show colicy signs as the fetus moves or compresses nearby structures.

What precipitates a colicky episode?
The answer to a specific horse’s problem is not always readily apparent, but there are several known factors that put a horse at risk to develop colic.

Regular parasite control and attention to dental care is important to the health of the digestive tract as a whole. These topics are covered in separate handouts.

The digestive tract of the horse evolved over time to operate most efficiently if small amounts of feed are ingested throughout the day and night. In the wild, horses graze about 14-16 hours out of each 24. In fact, the horse should never go more than 12 hours without feed. The equine stomach produces acid around the clock and when empty without the buffering effects of hay and saliva ulcers may develop.

Most of our domesticated horses are fed 2 to 3 times daily in larger portions. Although this is not ideal, most horses can adapt to this regimen adequately. Once a feeding schedule is established, however, regularity is important. Changes in feeding times, feed types or availability of water can upset the intestinal tract as it has been tuned to perform. Feeding of more than 5 pounds of a grain based concentrate at one meal may precipitate the production of excess gas in the large intestine and the absorption of endotoxins. Changes in the seasons, which alter temperatures, exercise routines, and feeding times, can become a problem. Work schedules of the person feeding can also change feeding times. Different feeds require different microflora to digest them properly. If these microflora are not present, buildup of gas and toxins in the intestine can result. Too little water can cause dry manure leading to obstruction and subsequent pain. Some plants are toxic and can cause colic. These plants can be found in pasture or in baled hay and can become toxic if eaten in small amounts over time.

Stress of transportation or competition often goes hand in hand with hydration deficits and electrolyte imbalance. These factors effect intestinal motility and are contributors to colic. Gastric ulcers are also more prevalent in competition horses and can develop in as few as 5 days.

Certain medications affect some horses adversely especially if used at inappropriate times or incorrect dosages. Some antibiotics can cause enteritis and occasionally, NSAIDS such as phenylbutazone and Banamine can cause kidney or intestinal damage. These drugs must be used with knowledge in horses that are sick or dehydrated.

First Aid For Colic
  1. Withhold all food but continue to offer water
  2. We recommend that you call us right away. Colic can be life threatening and we want to deal with any concerns you may have as soon as possible. If you call with a question or progress report we will want to know several things about your horse's vital statistics to the best of your knowledge:
    • Temperature (normal 99-100.5)
    • Heart Rate (36-48)
    • Respiration rate (14-24 normal)
    • Gum color (normally light pink)
    We will also want to know some details of the situation, such as:
    • Has the horse passed manure and if so what did it look like?
    • Has the horse urinated?
    • Is he comfortable or not?
    • Is he acting hungry?
    • Can you hear any gut sounds?
    • Any precipitating factors you know of: feed change, water source problem, stresses, medication, pregnancy?
  3. Hand walking or light longeing can be beneficial in speeding manure movement and increasing gut motility.
The Veterinarian's Role
The job of the veterinarian is to determine the most likely cause of colic pain and plan treatment accordingly. A complete exam will include evaluation of vital signs, color of the gums and return of gum color after finger pressure, presence or absence of intestinal sounds and an estimate of hydration status. A rectal exam often will be done to check the nature of the manure, presence of gas, and any pertinent anatomical abnormalities. A blood sample may be taken, especially if a fever is present.

Sometimes the specific cause for the problem remains unknown and treatment will be aimed at relieving pain and establishing good hydration and intestinal motility in an effort to evacuate manure and hopefully return the intestinal tract to normal function. Some of the more common drugs used are Banamine (flunixin), Buscopan, Rompun (xylazine), Dormosedan (detomadine) and Torbugesic (butorphanol). Fluid replacement can be given by stomach tube or in some cases intravenous fluid therapy is needed. Mineral oil along with warm water electrolyte solution is often given by stomach tube to soften and lubricate manure to encourage its passage.

Food is generally withheld or greatly reduced until passage of manure with mineral oil is observed. Clean water should be made available. Then once manure passage is insured, light feedings spaced several hours apart can begin. A bran mash or water softened pellets can be a good first meal or green grass if available. Do not begin feeding, however, until consulting with us. Each horse and each colicky episode is different and must be treated accordingly.

If at any time during a colic episode, questions or unforeseen problems arise call immediately.

Signs of Increasing Colic
  • Getting up and down repeatedly
  • Heart rate increasing, respiration increasing
  • Absence of gut sounds
  • Bloating
  • Severe depression
Most colic resolves routinely and successfully with the treatments discussed above. In a few instances referral to a hospital facility may be needed for further evaluation, treatment or surgery.

The comments above are certainly not a complete coverage of colic in horses, but are meant only as an overview to help understand this complex and serious problem.

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