Colic can be a tricky condition in horses, difficult to diagnose and effectively treat. With care, however, most horses do recover completely, and knowing how to deal with colic in horses can help you stay alert to your equine friend’s health. The better you understand colic, the more comfortable you can keep your horse during a painful bout and the better you can minimize the animal’s risk of another incident.
What Is Colic?
Colic is a relatively general term used to refer to abdominal pain. In horses, this pain may originate from various sources, including the stomach, intestines, or liver, and could be a result of impaction, gas, infections, parasites, tumors, strangulation, displacement, or other issues.
Many different factors can contribute to colic, including recent dietary changes, the horse’s exercise routines, overall weight or obesity, or dehydration. Stress can cause digestive difficulties that result in colic, as can ingesting sand that will interfere with proper digestion. Even dental issues can lead to colic, particularly if the horse is unable to properly chew its food, which can create impaction problems. While colic can occur at any age, very young horses as well as geriatric horses are typically more prone to the condition.
Symptoms of colic in horses vary, but may include:
- Looking at, biting, or kicking at the flanks
- Pawing at the ground or air
- Laying or rolling, particularly if aggressively active
- Groaning or unusual digestive noises
- Excessive sweating without exercise
- Bloated or distended abdomen
- Small, dry feces or lack of bowel movements
- Increased heart rate above 50 beats per minute
- Generally restless, frustrated, or agitated behavior
- Sitting dog-style with rear on the ground
Because these symptoms could also be related to a variety of other conditions, it is important to consult a veterinarian for a proper diagnosis as soon as a horse starts to exhibit potential signs of colic. Diagnostic tests, including checking for blockages and rectal exams to check internal organs, can confirm a colic diagnosis and guide correct treatment.
Colic can be fatal if not properly treated. Once a veterinarian has made the diagnosis, anti-inflammatory medication may be administered to reduce internal swelling and alleviate pain. Fluids or mineral oil administered orally can help ease the digestion process, or fluids may be given via an IV if the horse is severely dehydrated. Laxatives may be prescribed as well.
In cases of debilitating colic, or where the veterinarian determines a more severe cause for the condition, surgery may be necessary to correct the issue causing the horse’s distress. This can be an expensive procedure, and may require hospitalization for several days for appropriate follow-up care.
While it is impossible to completely prevent colic, there are many steps conscientious horse owners can take to minimize the risk that their animal will be subject to such pain.
- Provide adequate pasture turnout time so the horse can graze sufficiently.
- Adjust feeding to minimize grain and pelleted feed that can cause more impaction.
- Avoid sandy pasture areas so the horse will not ingest sand that can clog the gut.
- Schedule annual or 6-month dental care to improve chewing abilities.
- Follow an appropriate deworming and parasite management program.
- Take steps to lower the animal’s stress whenever necessary.
- Adjust exercise after colic treatment to prevent recurrence.
Any horse will be more prone to repeat bouts of colic after having experienced it once, but taking steps to manage colic can minimize the frequency and severity of the condition. By more quickly recognizing colic and seeking appropriate veterinary care right away, it is easier to deal with colic and keep your horse healthy and comfortable.