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  • Colic in horses

What is colic?

The term ‘colic’ simply refers to abdominal pain, which may vary from very mild signs to very violent signs.

What are the signs of colic?

The signs of colic are exceptionally variable and numerous and include some of the following: rolling, flank watching, lying down, curling the top lip, lying quietly and many more. Depending on the cause and duration of colic depends on the clinical signs.

What causes colic?

There are many different causes of colic, from simple ‘spasmodic’ colics through to strangulations, examples of these are below:

  • Spasmodic colic – These are caused by the gut being in spasm, normally due to a change in diet or routine, although the exact cause is unknown.
  • Impaction colic – This is created when the intestine becomes blocked up with partially digested food material, often due to the horse not drinking enough, having poor dental condition or a sudden change in management (for example from being turned out to being stable kept due to injury). Sand impactions can also arise, whereby sand accumulates in the large intestine, often due to grazing particularly sandy soils.
  • Displacement colic – These occur when there is abnormal movement of parts of the large intestine, which move and become trapped.
  • Twisting or torsions – These occur when parts of the gut rotate and twist, often cutting off the blood supply to the part of the gut.
  • Strangulations – These arise when a section of the gut becomes trapped (for example in a hernia) – cutting off the blood supply. These can also arise when fatty tumours (called lipomas) wrap around the intestine, cutting off the blood supply – this type of colic is most often encountered in older horses and ponies.
  • Peritonitis – This is an infection of the fluid that bathes the abdominal contents, it is often unknown as to why this condition arises, however the presenting sign is commonly colic.

How is colic treated?

Depending on the cause of the colic depends on how the horse will be treated, as some conditions can only truly be treated by surgery to explore the abdomen, whereas others can be treated whilst the horse is at home. Accurate diagnosis is essential to enable colic to be treated quickly and effectively. Most commonly, a vet will come out and assess your horse – this will involve taking a heart rate, respiration rate, temperature and listening to gut sounds. After this, commonly an internal rectal examination will be performed to assess the location and condition of the abdominal contents. Occasionally, a nasogastric tube (a tube which is passed up the nose and down into the stomach) will be passed – this enables the assessment of how full the stomach is, as well as enabling any fluids to be given. Additionally, if the vet feels it is required, a sample of the abdominal fluid surrounding the intestines may be taken, by placing a needle into the central part of the belly.

Commonly, the vet will give your horse a variety of drugs to try and make them more comfortable, these may include some of the following: Phenylbutazone (an anti-inflammatory and pain relieving drug), Buscopan (a smooth muscle relaxant to ease any muscle spasm), sedation (used to make the horse more comfortable and settle them down).

Some cases may not be able to be treated with drugs alone - these cases will often need referring to a specialist hospital facility whereby they may undergo exploratory abdominal surgery (exploratory laparotomy) to explore and treat the cause of colic. Often these cases can be lengthy and expensive to treat, so it is a good idea to be aware of this prior to making any decisions.

What should I do if my horse has colic?

Colic has the most successful outcome when it is identified, diagnosed and treated as soon as possible. The most important thing to do is to ring your veterinary surgeon, they will then come out as a matter of urgency. In the interim it is essential to keep your horse quiet and comfortable, however you must not ever put yourself in danger.

Can I prevent my horse from getting colic?

There is no definite way to prevent your horse getting colic, however there are a few things you can do to reduce the risk. These include:

  • Regular worming to prevent damage to the intestine and its blood supply
  • Keep the horse in a set routine, with changes in feed and management being made gradually
  • In sandy areas, feeding your horse off the ground can limit sand ingestion, preventing impactions
  • Ensuring your horse is in good general health