Studies show that 4-10% of horses are diagnosed with colic annually. However, some types of colic are more serious than others.
From an owner’s perspective, colic is one of the most frightening conditions that can affect a horse. Probably because in spite of it’s relatively low incidence, not only can colic still strike with impunity, it also has the potential to be seriously life-threatening.
In veterinary terms “colic” simply means, abdominal pain. Such a broad term, means a diagnosis of colic, refers to a multitude of different underlying conditions, some of which are more serious than others. Horses have a unique and complicated digestive system, loosely suspended in the abdominal cavity and surrounded by other body organs. It is this unfortunate design which predisposes the horse to different types of colic. Studies show 4-10% of horses are diagnosed with colic annually. However, some types of colic are more serious then others.
Types of Colic in Horses
Gas colic occurs when there is excessive build up of gas within the intestines of the horse. These horses can often have a lot of flatulence.
Spasmodic colic is the result of intestinal cramps or spasms. This type of colic can also have intestinal hyper motility.
Impaction colic accounts for 10% of all colics attended by veterinarians. These occur where partially digested feed, typically roughage, builds up in the large intestine of the horse and stops moving, resulting in a blockage or impaction. With impaction colic, the horse is not passing dung.
Sand colic occurs in horses living in sandy areas, or horses fed from sandy ground. Fine particle sand builds up in the large intestines resulting in colic.
A twisted gut occurs where a portion of the intestine twists on itself (intestinal torsion) or where a portion of intestine inverts into itself (intussusception). This uncommon type of colic accounts for less than 4% of colics overall, but it is very serious and life threatening.
Displacements occur when an area of the intestine moves from its normal location in the abdominal cavity to somewhere else, naturally this is not a common type of colic. When the displacements cannot freely move back to its original location, it becomes an entrapment. Displacements and entrapments are very serious because this change in location stretches the blood supply to the area of intestine and can result it being compressed or squashed.
Strangulation colic is very uncommon, but very serious. Strangulation colic occurs when the blood supply to an area of intestines is cut off (strangulated). Cutting off the blood supply, results in rapid death of the intestine wall, a serious life threatening situation.
It is important to realise however, that the vast majority of colics never have their exact causation determined. Happily, this “unidentified type” of colic, also has a recovery rate of over 95%. This can be interpreted as; most horses get a mild form of colic, which is successfully treated by their veterinarian, making further investigation unnecessary.
Symptoms of Colic in Horses
Despite the myriad types of colic, the signs of colic in horses are non specific. The typical signs of colic which most horse owners are familiar with include the following:
Pawing the ground
Looking at the flank
Kicking or biting at the flank
Repeatedly lying down and getting up again
Lying on their back
Violently throwing themselves to the ground
Curling upper lip
Stretched stance with hind legs far behind
Increased breathing rate
A horse with colic however, will exhibit only some of these signs. And which signs they exhibit give little indication of which type of colic they have. Regardless, horse owners should contact their veterinarian as soon as they suspect colic in their horse. In many cases earlier treatment results in better outcomes.
While waiting for your veterinarian to arrive, you should bring the horses into a stable or small sectioned off area for closer observation and remove any feed. Horses that are rolling or getting up and down, can be hand walked, if safe to do so. Observe the horse for worsening of signs, interest in food and water and defecation or flatulence.
Treatments for Colic in Horses
Your veterinarian will examine the horse thoroughly, recording their mucus membrane colour, hydration status, heart rate, respiratory rate and gut sounds. They may also perform a rectal examination, naso-gastric intubation, abdominal ultrasound, a belly tap or blood sampling. All of these tests help your veterinarian get a more accurate picture of the type of colic affecting your horse, so they can implement an appropriate treatment plan. Treatment options which your vet will consider include:
Horses with colic are in pain, common equine pain relieving medications such as phenylbutazone are used in the treatment of colic.
Some horses with colic have over-active spasming intestines. Medicines which reduce intestinal motility can be used in such cases.
Horses that are dehydrated can have electrolytes and fluids administered via a stomach tube or intravenous dip.
Laxatives such as liquid paraffin are given using a stomach tube and particularly employed for cases of impaction.
Although dreaded by owners, surgical treatment for cases of twisted gut, strangulation and displacement/entrapment is the only option. It is estimated that there are 2-3 colic surgeries per hour in the USA. Unfortunately, not only are these expensive, the statistics indicate, only 50% of horses operated on for colic survive.
Effects of Colic in Horses
Unfortunately, because of the diverse types of colic and the unique challenges of equine digestive system, horses will always be prone to colic. There are some risk factors associated with colic that owners however, can impact on, including:
Worm control – heavy worm burdens increase the risk of colic.
Dietary change – rapid dietary change increases the risk of colic.
Dental health – poor dentition is associated with impaction colic.
Roughage quality – Diets predominately containing coarse roughage (such as straw) are associated with impaction colic.
Concentrate feeding – feeding over 5kg of concentrates, in one or two feeds increases the risk of colic. Feed little and often to reduce this risk.
Pasture access – horses with greatest time at pasture have least incidence of colic.
Exercise – reduced exercise increases the incidence of colic.
Cribbing – horses that crib have an increased incidence of colic.
Transport – post travelling horses have a greater incidence of colic
Post Pregnancy – mares have a greater incidence of colic in the 2-6 months after having a foal.
Not all of these risk factors can be altered by owners in every case, however, knowledge of these risk factors, can help with horse and dietary management to help minimise their impact.
Horses will always be prone to colic, good dietary and husbandry management can minimise their chances of being affected by colic. Knowledge of the signs of colic and vigilance regarding their observation results in quicker veterinary intervention and referral, leading to better recovery rates for the horse. Finally, although colic is a serious condition, requiring prompt treatment, it should be remembered, the risk of an individual horse of suffering from colic is quite low.
If you have further concerns about colic in horses or if we haven’t answered all your questions, you can contact one of our equine specialists for further advice.