The term ‘colic’ is a symptom or sign and is not a diagnosis of a disease. It means there is pain in the abdomen or belly. This could be associated with the gut (gastro-intestinal tract), but equally, the kidneys, liver or another condition such as pneumonia, fractured ribs or ‘tying up’ may be responsible.
Why is colic so common in horses?
Horses were designed to be ‘trickle feeders’, meaning they eat very little amounts often and typically would graze in excess of 20 hours a day. They would get their exercise by foraging around for food and mixing grasses, grains, and other roughages. They have very fragile and finely balanced gastro intestinal systems that are easily disrupted by even the slightest changes. Through domestication, man has interfered with this delicate balance by introducing concentrated feeds, stabling, small paddock confinement and changes in exercise to suit the seasons.
What are the signs of colic?
In the early stages it can be very difficult to distinguish between a mild problem that can resolve on its own and a more severe condition that is potentially fatal. This is why ALL cases of horses with colic symptoms should be taken seriously from the start and veterinary advice sought.
Colic signs may present mildly or be so severe that they are life threatening to the horse and to those trying to help it. The following are a few examples of what to expect:
- Scraping the ground either mildly and occasionally, or vigorously and constantly striking out
- Lying down more than usual, often completely on its side
- Getting up and down repeatedly
- Standing with hind legs stretched out behind it
- Frequently posturing to urinate
- Flank watching, stretching head and neck around to look at abdomen
- Repeatedly curling the upper lip
- Kicking at the under belly
- Lying on its back, perhaps getting cast up against a wall
- Manic uncontrolled thrashing
What can you do while waiting for the vet to arrive?
- Bring the horse in from the paddock and put it in a clean, well bedded box.
- Do not offer feed, hay or water.
- Remove items from the box that the horse could potentially injure itself on, e.g. hanging buckets, hay nets, etc.
- If it helps relieve pain, the horse can be walked out around the stable yard until the vet arrives.
- Pay close attention to times and details of when the colic started and how the horse has been managed so the vet can get a clear history. Write everything down.
- Your vet may ask: when was the horse last fed? Any changes in eating habits? When was the horse last wormed? When was it last exercised? Could your horse be pregnant? When was the last time he/she passed faeces? etc.
- Do not put yourself in danger by trying to stop a thrashing, violently painful horse!
Your vet may do some or all of the following when they arrive:
- Observe the horse’s behaviour while left alone in its box. Look for faeces and note the character and consistency of them. They can then assess the severity of the pain.
- Ask you if there have been any changes in management; anything from change of paddocks or feeding regime to increase in box rest.
- Do a clinical examination:
- Including checking the horse’s heart rate, respiration (breathing) rate, and temperature
- Looking at the colour of the mucous membranes (gums)
- Listening for gut sounds and look for abdominal distention
- Relieve pressure in the stomach. A small intestinal blockage may cause the stomach to bloat. This is potentially serious because horses can’t vomit. Relieving pressure involves passing a tube into the stomach and releasing any gas and fluid. With the stomach decompressed, the horse may feel immediately more comfortable.
- Take a blood sample to check for dehydration. Very sick colicky horses rapidly become dehydrated and this is simple to diagnose by performing a blood concentration test (haematocrit).
- Take a sample of peritoneal fluid; this is the fluid that normally bathes the guts in the abdominal cavity. Changes in its colour and clarity can indicate a problem with the intestines. This can be quite difficult to do unless the horse is adequately restrained and there are good levels of light. The procedure involves putting a needle into the abdominal cavity of the horse from underneath. Fluid is collected in a tube and evaluated.
- Perform a rectal exam. This could also be difficult if the horse is not adequately restrained. Drugs used to sedate the horse are frequently used to help relax it for this examination. The examination aims to detect any abnormal swellings and blockages that may be present in the intestines. Due to the size of the horse and the length of the human arm this test is not always conclusive.
- Give the horse pain relief and/or sedation.
Your vet may decide to refer your horse to a hospital for further investigation or surgery.
90% of horses with colic do not require surgery and respond to medical treatment. The decision to send a horse for surgery will depend on the results collected from various examinations and tests. These results are then pieced together to form an overall picture of what may be happening and how it may need to be treated. Deciding to take a horse to surgery is not an easy decision or one that should be taken lightly.
Preparing for the journey to a specialist hospital:
- Have clear written directions and contact numbers on how to get to the hospital
- Take a detailed report of the history and treatments given by your vet.
- Take a friend along, especially at night, in case you run into trouble on the way.
- Take a mobile phone with you
- DO NOT ride in the back of the horse box or trailer with the horse. You could incur serious injury if you are caught in a confined space with a colicking horse.
How can I prevent colic?
- Feed your horse small amounts often
- Feed at regular intervals the same time each day
- Feed hay and water before hard feeds (grains)
- Allow free access to clean water
- Turnout as often as possible
- Remove all traces of mouldy hay and hard feeds
- Do not over feed
- Keep weight within normal limits
- 60% of energy intake should be from forage
- Do not overgraze paddocks
- Do not graze on sandy paddocks
- Worm regularly according to veterinary advice and preferably check for efficacy with worm egg counts
- Make sure the horse is fully cooled down before feeding and offering water
- Provide access to good quality forage as much as possible when stabled
- Maintain a consistent exercise programme
- Most importantly, make all changes to diet, exercise and management slowly