What is Colic in Horses

Colic is one of the most common disorders that horses experience. Most horses will experience at least one episode of colic over the course of their life.

It is a disorder of the digestive system. The term is a reference to the abdominal pain that occurs when colic is present. When a horse is suffering from colic, behaviors such as rolling, pawing, and lethargy can be seen. Some horses may even be unable to defecate until the issue with their colic is resolved.

What makes colic such a tricky diagnosis in horses is the fact that there are several different types of it that are possible. Colic can also strike in varying levels of severity and horses can respond differently to the abdominal pain that is being caused.

It is a condition that should never be taken lightly. Severe instances of colic can put the life of the horse at risk. All colic episodes should be treated as a health emergency in horses and a veterinarian should be consulted immediately.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Spasmodic Colic?

Spasmodic colic is often the most painful type of colic in horses. When present, it creates contractions within the bowels that can be very powerful. It is very similar to an attack of bloating and gas in humans, but on a much larger scale. You will often hear audible sounds coming from the gastrointestinal tract of a horse that is suffering from this form of colic.

Horses suffering from spasmodic colic will often be quite sweaty, especially along the neck. These symptoms are usually present in some form as well.

  • The horse will shake, kick, roll around on the ground, or paw at the ground.
  • There will be an unusual level of anxiousness with the horse, as well as restlessness.
  • Loud, rushing sounds can be heard frequently from the gut.

The personality of the horse is a known risk factor for spasmodic colic. Horses that are laid-back and calm tend to have fewer instances of this colic type when compared to high-strung, nervous horses. 

Preventing spasmodic colic requires managing the daily routine of the horse. Changes to the grass, grains, or hay that the horse eats can cause this intestinal issue. Horses that become frightened easily need a calm space to reduce their anxiousness. Avoid giving a horse cold water after they’ve had a hard workout or a long day of being turned out.

When horses are kept calm and new foods are introduced gradually, spasmodic colic can often be prevented.

This form of colic usually resolves on its own within an hour or two. If it safe for the horse to walk, movement can help to expel the trapped gas.  Certain analgesics can be prescribed for horses that continue to suffer from this condition.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Impaction Colic?

Impaction colic is caused by a blockage that forms somewhere in the gastrointestinal tract of the horse. These can be caused by a feed material obstruction or a foreign object. Most impactions occur in the large colon, but any impaction within the GI tract will cause the signs and symptoms of colic.

Horses suffering from impaction colic will usually have no fecal production. They will exhibit symptoms of chronic pain within their abdomen. You will also see a darkening of the horse’s mucus membranes. These additional symptoms are usually present in some form too.

  • A reduction in body temperature that correlates with the length of time the impaction has occurred. Longer impactions create lower body temperatures.
  • There will be a reluctance to eat any new food or graze in the pasture.
  • Many horses suffering from this form of colic will experience a desire to lay down for extended periods.

Managing the feeding routine of the horse is one of the best ways to prevent impaction colic from forming. Horses will naturally eat for up to 16 hours over the course of a day if left to their own devices. They prefer to eat fibrous plants and then chew on them slowly. Many owners and handlers tend to provide horses with two large meals, featuring grain products, and that impacts the function of the GI tract.

Good dental care can also lower the risk of an impaction. 

Heavy grain feedings without water can create an impaction in very little time. A horse requires up to 4 pints of water for every pound of feed grain that is consumed. 

Treatment for an impaction usually involves a combination of laxatives, painkillers, and water. Liquid paraffin is sometimes used to soften the bowel movement. Then the horse should be walked to stimulate the GI tract. Once a bowel movement is achieved, laxative feeds are usually given for several days.

In severe cases, surgery is the only option to eliminate the impaction. Most colic surgeries involve an impaction that occurs within the small intestine.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Parasitic Colic?

Parasitic colic occurs when a heavy burden of parasites forms within the gastrointestinal tract of the horse and prevents normal digestion. Tapeworms, red worms, and ascarid worms are all known to cause this condition. They can be located at the junction of the small and large intestines, along the intestinal lining, or even with the arteries of the intestines.

Horses suffering from this form of colic will often exhibit the same severity of symptoms found with impaction colic, but still be able to pass a bowel movement. Owners or handlers may see adult parasites in the feces of the horse.

Determining if the colic is caused by parasites is done through the use of a fecal egg worm count, a tapeworm antibody blood test, or both. Some parasites, however, can remain undetected, especially if their location is within the gut wall.

The treatment options for parasitic colic depend on the type of parasite, the severity of the colic, and the overall health of the horse. Pasture management and monitoring is often required as part of the treatment plan. Certain anti-parasitic medications may be prescribed to encourage their passage.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Inflammatory Colic?

Sometimes, the small intestine of the horse can become so inflamed that it swells shut. When this occurs, the symptoms of inflammation will mimic the symptoms of an impaction. The inflammation can be caused by a gut injury, an allergic reaction, or by a bacterial infection. It usually occurs at the duodenum and proximal jejunum.

Depending on the severity of the swelling, a horse suffering from inflammatory colic may experience a build-up of digested foods in the front section of the gut.

If this condition is suspected, the only known method of making a definitive diagnosis is to perform an exploratory surgery. During the surgery, the intestines will be decompressed. The veterinarian will provide anti-inflammatory medications and antibiotics as needed.
This form of colic is seen most often in North America. Although it can be dangerous during an acute attack, it can be managed medically in most horses so a happy, long life can be experienced.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Entrapment Colic?

Horses have fatty tissues within their gastrointestinal tract. Sometimes these tissues have lengthy stalks to them and those stalks can wrap around the intestine. During a spasmodic episode, it is even possible for the intestines to become wrapped around themselves, which creates an obstruction.

In many instances, once the intestines become wrapped and compressed, the blood supply to them becomes cut off. That causes the intestinal tissues to begin dying, which eventually leads to the death of the horse if the condition is not treated quickly.

This form of colic typically affects the small intestine or small colon. Endotoxic shock occurs if the affected intestine or colon is not removed.

The only treatment option for entrapment colic is surgery. The veterinarian must identify the affected intestine or colon and the fatty tissues or other cause of entrapment. As part of the surgery, all dead tissues from the affected intestine must be removed. The vet will then attach the healthy components of the intestine back together.

Recovery from this type of colic depends on the length of time blood was kept away from the intestine. The health of the horse at the time of surgery will influence recovery times as well. Even the type of surgery that is required can affect the outcome. For healthy horses, the prognosis is often good, but if the entrapment was present for a prolonged period, the prognosis can also be quite poor.

By recognizing the signs and symptoms of colic in a horse, the treatment they need can be administered quickly. Fast recognition of colic can save a horse’s life, especially if the intestines have been entrapped or there is an impaction that has formed. Whenever colic is suspected in horses, the first phone call should be to the horse’s veterinarian. Then do everything you can to make the horse comfortable until a treatment plan can be developed.