How to Treat Colic in Horses

If you suspect that your horse may be suffering from the pain and discomfort of colic, then it is necessary to contact your veterinarian right away. Horses are unable to vomit, so colic is the result of something that is passing through their gastrointestinal tract that may not supposed to be there. Without treatment and attention, the intestines of the horse may shift or twist, creating life-threatening circumstances.

Colic is also relatively common and horses can suffer from several different types. This means the symptoms being experienced by the horse may vary in severity. Even if there is just mild discomfort being displayed, however, any type of colic should be treated as a medical emergency.

What Are the Symptoms of Colic?

Horses respond to colic in many different ways. Some animals may appear to be unaffected by the discomfort and continue on with their daily routine as if nothing is wrong. Others may become lethargic and may roll around on the ground. Pawing and rolling are two common behaviors that are seen when colic is present.

Some horses that are suffering from colic may also develop an inability to pass waste products. A lack of defecation should be reported to a veterinarian immediately.

These additional generalized symptoms of equine colic may also be noticed. 

  • Anxiety that is above and beyond what the horse normally displays.
  • A lack of appetite and thirst, which may include playing with their food or their water bucket.
  • A pulse rate that is abnormally high, sometimes 50+ beats per minute.
  • Excessive sweating that is combined with the horse constantly looking at its flanks.

Horses suffering from colic may also make frequent attempts to urinate in order to stimulate movement in their gastrointestinal tract. Upon examination, normal gut noises may not be present with the horse.

Certain types of colic can also produce specific symptoms.

Spasmodic Colic: This gas-based form of colic produces loud gut sounds and makes the horse become very anxious. There will be frequent attempts to roll around, though the actual painful symptoms may be sporadic in nature.

Impact Colic: This form of colic prevents fecal production due to an impacted colon. This will create dark mucus membranes and a long-term reluctance to eat. The horse will also experience a drop in body temperature.

How Do I Know if My Horse is Suffering from Colic?

There are three key factors to look at in determining if a horse may be suffering from colic: their heart rate, their respiratory rate, and the color of their mucus membranes. Any changes to the baseline of these factors, when combined with the other symptoms of colic, are a good indication that the next step should be a phone call to the veterinarian.

Once your vet has arrived, there are a series of examination and diagnostic procedures that may take place. This includes an evaluation of gut sounds, along with another evaluation of the horse’s vital signs. If the pain is severe, a sedative may be given. Then there will be a thorough interview regarding the behavior of the horse over the past few days.

A rectal exam may be necessary to make sure a portion of the colon has not become twisted. A nasogastric tube may also be introduced so that fluids and be directly administered to the stomach of the horse. In severe instances, a stomach tap to collect fluids that are building up may also be required so that the direct cause of the colic can be determined.

After the examination has been completed and colic is the diagnosis, your veterinarian will work with you to develop a specific treatment plan to address the issue.

What Are the Different Treatments Available for Colic?

The cause of colic will always dictate what the treatment will be.

One of the most common first treatments for colic is the administration of an analgesic. Banamine is one that is commonly used. It is introduced for virtually all cases of colic because it helps to control the abdominal pain that is being experienced by the horse.

If gas is considered to be one of the causes of colic, the nasogastric tube can be used to relieve gas pressure at the same time it provides a hydration option for the horse. Depending on the severity of dehydration, an IV line may be given to the horse as well.

For colic that is caused by an impacted colon, the only way to relieve the pain is to remove the impaction. The first step in this process is to administer some type of laxative to the horse, which is usually offered in the form of mineral oil. Then the horse must be kept off of its feed until the impaction can be released. Once defecation occurs, the symptoms of colic will typically begin to fade and then disappear.

Sometimes the colic can cause a loop in the bowels or cause the colon to twist. In this circumstance, the only treatment solution is surgery. If the loop or twist is not resolved, then the health of the horse will be at-risk. This is why every case of colic should be treated as a medical emergency. 

How to Be Proactive Against Colic

Colic can often be resolved with minimal interventions. Deny food to the horse based on your vet’s recommendations and administer any medications that are recommended to ease the symptoms being experienced. Then, as the horse recovers, be sure to return them to their daily routine slowly and methodically. Make sure to watch for abdominal pain symptoms that may reoccur.

Sometimes horses will appear to suffer from colic for no known reason. This is why being proactive in preventing colic can often stop a painful episode from every starting in the first place. 

The best thing to do for every horse is to make sure they always have access to water that is fresh and clean. When winter comes and the water turns to ice, this increases the risks of the horse suffering from an impaction colic incident. Horses are very picky about their water and don’t like drinking very cold water. Purchasing a water heater can be a great investment.

Horses also need a lot of roughage in their diet since they are a grazing animal. Receiving too many grains and sugars without access to the bulk of hay or grazing can promote gaseous forms of colic. Combine this with regular dental checkups to make sure the horse can properly grind its food for best results.

But grazing also needs to be controlled. Sending a horse out to pasture with lush Spring grass is like putting a large birthday cake in front of a toddler and letting them eat as much as they want. Grazing should be a slow process and it may need to be controlled.

In following these steps, you’ll be able to know how to treat colic in horses. Always contact your veterinarian for consultation, even if you feel that you’re sure about what to do, so that the health of the horse can be protected.