The term “colic” is a general term for abdominal pain. There are many causes for such pain, they could range from mild, moderate, life-threatening or even fatal. One of the problems with equine colic is distinguishing from a mild case of colic or a fatal one. This is why all signs of abdomen pain should be taken seriously as soon as they are noticed.
Signs of colic
o Lying down more than usual
o Getting up and lying down repeatedly
o Standing stretched out frequently as if to urinate
o Turning head towards belly “flank watching”
o Repeatedly curling the upper lip
o Pawing the ground
o Kicking at the abdomen
o Rolling repeatedly
Types of Colic
Impaction colic: This is term used when the intestine becomes blocked by a firm mass of digested food or a high parasite burden. Impactions mostly occur in the large intestine. This type of colic is fairly common and can often be resolved with the appropriate treatment. However, impaction colic may be the first sign of something more serious.
Gas colic: Sometimes gas builds up in the large intestine and/or cecum. The gas stretches the intestine causing serious pain. Gas colic usually resolves fairly easily with appropriate treatment, although it is essential to check that there are no other underlying causes for this problem.
Spasmodic colic: Some cases of colic are due to increased spasms/contractions of the intestines. These abnormal spasms cause the intestines to contract painfully. These cases usually resolve fairly well.
Displacement/ Volvulus/ Torsion (“Twisted Gut”): In “displacement” colic, a part of the intestine has moved to an abnormal position in the abdomen. A “volvulus” or “torsion” occurs when a part of the intestine twists. Except in rare cases, this type of colic causes a strangulation of the intestinal blood supply and requires immediate surgery for the horse to survive. The earlier stages of this type of colic may resemble those of the less serious types of colic. That is why it is important to take all types of colic seriously, and to contact your veterinarian immediately.
Enteritis/ colitis: Some cases of colic are due to inflammation of the small and/or large intestines. These are both serious medical cases and require immediate veterinary attention.
Gastric distension/ Rupture: Horses have a small stomach in relationship to their large body size and they can not vomit. So when a horse gorges itself on grain, the normal digestion and fermentation are altered causing increased gas & potential toxin production. Beet pulp can be especially dangerous if not soaked well as it can swell within the stomach and cause impaction or rupture if left untreated. Horses that get into the grain room & eat a large amount of dry beet pulp are at a higher risk. If you suspect your horse has gorged itself on concentrated foods, seek veterinary help immediately.
Sand colic: While grazing and grubbing in the pasture horses pick-up small amounts of dirt (sand) which collect in the intestines. Since this material is heavier than feed & forage it doesn’t move freely through the intestines and “pools” in the intestines. Then when the sand IS moved by digested feed ors the natural motility of the intestine, it rubs on the intestine, much like sandpaper, causing intermittent bouts of pain. This form of colic may readily resolve with Banamine at the farm but if painful bout persists or frequently occur, a veterinarian should assess the horse before a more serious situation arises.
Prevention of colic
Aids in Prevention
o Allow as much turnout as possible
o Maintain a regular feeding schedule
o Ensure constant access to clean water
o Provide at least 60% of digestible energy from forage
o Do not feed moldy hay or grain
o Feed hay and water before grain
o Provide several small “meals” throughout the day verses large heavy meals
o Do not feed or water horses before they have cooled out
o Maintain a consistent exercise routine
o Make all changes to diet, exercise and management slowly
o Submit fecal samples to your veterinarian annually to assess your horse’s parasite and/or sand burden.
The number one killer of horses is colic. Colic is not a disease, but rather a combination of signs that alert us to abdominal pain in the horse. Colic can range from mild to severe, but it should never be ignored. Many of the conditions that cause colic can become life threatening in a relatively short period of time. Only by quickly and accurately recognizing colic – and seeking qualified veterinary help – can the chance for recovery be maximized.
While horses seem predisposed to colic due to the anatomy and function of their digestive tracts, management can play a key role in prevention. Although not every case is avoidable, the following guidelines from the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) can maximize the horse’s health and reduce the risk of colic:
1. Establish a daily routine – include feeding and exercise schedules – and stick to it.
2. Feed a high quality diet comprised primarily of roughage.
3. Avoid feeding excessive grain and energy-dense supplements. (At least half the horse’s energy should be supplied through hay or forage. A better guide is that twice as much energy should be supplied from a roughage source than from concentrates.)
4. Divide daily concentrate rations into two or more smaller feedings rather than one large one to avoid overloading the horse’s digestive tract. Hay is best fed free-choice.
5. Set up a regular parasite control program with the help of your equine practitioner.
6. Provide exercise and/or turnout on a daily basis. Change the intensity and duration of an exercise regimen gradually.
7. Provide fresh, clean water at all times. (The only exception is when the horse is excessively hot, and then it should be given small sips of luke-warm water until it has recovered.)
8. Avoid putting feed on the ground, especially in sandy soils.
9. Check hay, bedding, pasture, and environment for potentially toxic substances, such as blister beetles, noxious weeds, and other ingestible foreign matter.
10. Reduce stress. Horses experiencing changes in environment or workloads are at high risk of intestinal dysfunction. Pay special attention to horses when transporting them or changing their surroundings, such as at shows.
Virtually any horse is susceptible to colic. Age, sex, and breed differences in susceptibility seem to be relatively minor. The type of colic seen appears to relate to geographic or regional differences, probably due to environmental factors such as sandy soil or climatic stress. Importantly, what this tells us is that, with conscientious care and management, we have the potential to reduce and control colic, the number one killer of horses.
Reprinted with permission from the American Association of Equine Practitioners.