Colic: Abdominal pain in horses

No equine illness is more feared or more misunderstood than colic. In essence, colic simply means abdominal pain and can be caused by any one of a long list of problems. The majority of colic cases are caused by gas or dehydration, problems that can be fixed medically. A small number of colic cases need surgery to correct. 

Symptoms: Horses may have one or many of these signs.

  1. Pawing
  2. Rolling
  3. Decreased or lack of appetite
  4. Sweating
  5. Looking at flanks or sides
  6. Stretching out
  7. Depression
  8. Absence of gut sounds
  9. Bloating

Potential Causes:

  1. Changes in feed, including sudden changes in hay or grain.
  2. Dehydration or decreased water consumption.
  3. Stress or drug induced gastric or colonic ulcers.
  4. Dental problems, poor dentition.
  5. Poor quality forage (moldy, musty, dusty). Bermuda/Coastal hay is associated with impactions.
  6. Parasite infestation.
  7. Sand ingestion.
  8. Displacement or twisting of the intestines.
  9. Rarely, tumors or cancer.

When Do You Call the Veterinarian?

If your horse shows violent colic signs such as rolling or being unresponsive, please call us immediately. Milder signs might be observed for 15-30 minutes but if they persist or get worse, please call right away. The sooner we can diagnose and begin treatments, the better chance we have of saving your horse (and it in fact costs less money to work on them before they get very sick).

Types of Colic:

  1. Gas or spasmodic- similar to cramps or gas bloating, these horses can be very painful but are usually treated with simple medical therapy.
  2. Impaction- large amounts of hard and dry fecal material block the colon and prevent movement of feed material past the impaction. Secondary build up of gas also causes pain. These horses are treated medically but occasionally will require surgery depending on how long the problem has been going on and how painful they are. 
  3. Displacement- the colon floats out of position and begins to twist into abnormal locations in the abdomen. The blood supply to the intestines is strained and build up of gas is very painful. Some of these horses can be treated medically but there is a good chance they will need surgery if the problem has gone on more than a few hours. This category includes nephrosplenic entrapments and right dorsal displacements of the large colon. 
  4. Torsion or volvulus- the intestines twist (can be either the large colon or the small intestines) which cuts off the blood supply to the intestines completely. Gas builds up and the gut starts to die. These horses need immediate surgery. 
  5. Entrapment or strangulation- the gut gets caught or tangled (usually small intestines). These horses require surgery.
  6. Ulcers- gastric or colonic ulcers can cause pain similar to acid reflux. These often lead to intermittent low grade colic signs that can be treated medically.
  7. Colitis or enteritis- caused by inflammation of the bowel wall and causes build up of fluid and electrolyte imbalances. These cases are treated medically.