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Colic In Horses

What Is Colic

Colic in horses is defined as abdominal pain, but it is a clinical symptom rather than a diagnosis. The term colic can encompass all forms of gastrointestinal conditions which cause pain as well as other causes of abdominal pain not involving the gastrointestinal tract. Colic is defined as any abdominal pain although most people typically refer to colic as problems with the gastrointestinal tract. The causes of colic are numerous, but generally they are related to the anatomy and the microflora of the horse's gastrointestinal tract.

Causes of Colic

Some more common causes of colic include:

High grain based diets/Low forage diets

Mouldy food

Abrupt change in feed

Parasite infection

Lack of water consumption

Sand ingestion

Long term use of NSAIDS


Dental problems

The signs of colic in horses include:

The signs of colic vary from case to case, but studies have shown that of horses with colic do the following:

44% roll

43% paw continuously or intermittently

29% lie down for a long time

21% get up and down

14% repeatedly look at their flank

13% curl up their upper lip

10% back into a corner

7% look at their abdomen

4% stand in a stretched position as it is trying to urinate

1% fail to pass droppings for longer than 24hr




Loss of interest in food and water

Peculiar postures (sitting, stretching)

Absence of gut sounds

How colic is developed

Spasmodic colic: Also known as gas colic, is caused due to a build up of gas in the horse's gut due to excess fermentation within the intestines or a decreased ability to move gas through it. It is commonly caused by a change of diet, a lack of roughage or parasites.

The treatment of colic in horses

Most colic cases can be treated with medication and the use of a nasogastric (stomach) tube to alleviate gas and administer medications. However, if there is a displacement or an impaction that can't be successfully treated on site, then the horse will need to go to an equine surgical hospital. If there's minimal fluid, the tube can be used to give mineral oil, water, and/or other laxatives. Mineral oil and laxatives may relieve an impaction, and water can rehydrate the horse. Both mineral oil and water can stimulate gut motility.

The prevention of colic in horses

Some of the preventative measures are self-explanatory. For example, if an abrupt change in diet caused a problem, make sure to make dietary changes gradually in the future. Some other preventative measures include:

Feed the horse on a regular schedule even on the weekends.

Do not make sudden changes to the horse's diet.

A clean fresh water supply should always be available.

Keep feed boxes as well as the feedstuffs free of mould and dust.

Check teeth frequently for dental problems

Provide adequate exercise.

Feed the appropriate amount of forage (at least 50% of the total diet).

Keep feed off the ground to avoid sand ingestion.

Practice an effective parasite control program

Types of Colic Colic is related to many different maladies and include the following:

Stomach distention – the small capacity of the horse’s stomach makes it susceptible to distension when large amounts of grain are ingested in a single meal. There is the potential for the stomach to rupture which is fatal.

Displacement colic – the small intestine is suspended by in the abdominal cavity by the mesentery and is free floating in the gut. This mobility can predispose the small intestine to become twisted. A twisted intestine requires immediate surgery to reposition the intestine and remove any portion of the intestine that is damaged due to restricted blood flow. In addition, both the small and large intestine can become displaced in the abdominal cavity causing both pain and restricted blood flow. Displacement colic can be caused by gas build up in the gut that makes the intestines buoyant and subject to movement within the gut. Displacement colic needs immediate surgical treatment.

Impaction colic – the large intestine folds upon itself and has several changes of direction (flexures) and diameter changes. These flexures and diameter shifts can be sights for impactions, where a firm mass of feed or foreign material blocks the intestine (including the cecum). Impactions can be induced by coarse feed stuff, dehydration or accumulation of foreign material like sand.

Gas colic – all colics are associated with some gas build up. Gas can accumulate in the stomach as well as the intestines. As gas builds up, the gut distends, causing abdominal pain. Excessive gas can be produced by bacteria in the gut after ingestion of large amounts of grain or mouldy feeds. A nasogastric (stomach) tube inserted by a veterinarian is used to relieve the pressure of the gas and fluid accumulation in the stomach.

Spasmodic colic - defined as painful contractions of the smooth muscle in the intestines. Spasmodic colic has been compared to indigestion in people and is usually easily treated by a veterinarian. Over excitement can trigger spasmodic colic.

Enteritis – inflammation of the intestine possibly due to bacteria, grain overload or tainted feed. Horses with enteritis may also have diarrhoea. Enteritis is often hard to diagnose and may present itself similar to displacement.

Written by Krystle - TISOVN Student - Certificate In Animal Studies

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