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Understanding colic in horses

Introduction to Colic

What is colic?

Colic is the name given to abdominal (belly) pain usually caused by problems in the digestive system (gastrointestinal or GI tract). It is still one of the most common causes of death in horses, although prognosis has improved with better diagnosis and treatment.

What are the different types of colic?

There are a number of types of colic which may vary in intensity.

Type of colic Description
Spasmodic (gas) ·         This is one of the most common causes of colic

·         Pain arises due to a build-up of gas or fluid in the gastrointestinal area causing the intestine to contract abnormally (spasm)

·         Typically caused by a change in diet, or lack of roughage

·         Symptoms tend to be mild

·         Responds well to painkillers and anti-spasmodic drugs

·         Prognosis is generally good

Impaction ·         Pain due to a blockage in the intestine, perhaps caused by impacted food, which causes a build-up of gas and fluid or impaction is caused by a heavy tapeworm burden

·         Typically responds well to pain relief, fluids and laxatives

·         Some cases may need surgery

·         Prognosis is generally good although severe cases may prove fatal

Sand ·         Caused by horses eating sand and dirt, and more commonly seen in horses kept on sandy pasture particularly if there is limited grazing available

·         The intake of sand/grit leads to impaction and may also cause irritation of the bowel lining

·         These cases usually require surgery to remove the intestinal contents although mild cases may be respond to medicine

·         Prognosis is generally good

Displacements ·         These occur when alterations in the gut motility (movement) and/or gas in the gut causes parts of the gut to move about within the abdomen so they end up on places they would not normally be found.

·         Symptoms can be mild or severe

·         Some cases will respond well to medical treatment and lunging while others will get rapidly worse and need immediate surgical intervention

·         Prognosis varies with the type of displacement

Twisted gut ·         Caused by parts of the intestine twisting on itself which cuts off blood supply to this part of the gut (strangulations are when fatty tumours wrap around the gut and cut off blood supply, necessitating surgery)

·         Symptoms can vary in severity depending on how much of the gut is twisted and for how long the blood supply has been limited

·         Surgery is usually needed

·         Prognosis depends on how quickly surgery is performed and how severely the gut is affected

 What should I do if my horse has colic?

Call your vet if any symptoms of colic arise. Remove food and hay from reach, and ensure the immediate area around your horse is hazard-free and safe. If the symptoms are mild, try walking your horse for 10 minutes but if symptoms persist for more than 30 minutes or get worse, call the vet.  If your horse is rolling violently, leave them where they are and ensure you keep out of harm’s way.How is colic treated and managed?

The majority of cases are treated with pain relief. Fluids, lubricants and salts may be given via stomach tube to clear any impacted feed, or motility modifiers can be administered to ease cramping or spasms. Your vet may suggest gentle exercise under their supervision. A small proportion of cases need surgery.

What is the prognosis for colic?

Most cases of colic either resolve spontaneously or are successfully treated with medication and effective management. For those cases requiring surgery, an earlier intervention increases the chance of success.  Remember, the key to a successful outcome in colic cases is early diagnosis and treatment.

Thank you to vets, Rick Farr and Nikki Pursey, of Farr & Pursey Equine Veterinary Services, for their input to this article.

Helpful resources

The Royal School of Veterinary Studies – colic information sheet

The University of Liverpool Equine Hospital