Causes & Symptoms Of Colic In Horses
Colic is a major concern for almost all horse owners. If you haven’t had the unfortunate experience of having a horse suffer from colic it’s a very real threat which looms large when you see a horse rolling in the paddock! Here we look at the different types of colic, what to look out for and what you as a horse owner can do to help ease the impact of colic once they have recovered from the severe pain and effects of colic.
What are the types of horse colic?
There are many different types of colic however some are more common than others.
Sand colic – Horses that are fed on the ground or housed in very sandy soils are at higher risk for sand accumulation in the gut and pain or colic being associated with a build-up of sand in the gastro intestinal tract.
Gas colic – all colics are associated with some form of 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 moldy feeds. A stomach tube inserted by a vet is used to relieve the pressure of the gas and fluid accumulation in the stomach.
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, Strangulation or Torsion: Displacements occur when one section of the bowel moves to an abnormal location within the abdomen. Strangulating colic’s occur when the blood supply to a piece of gut gets cut off. Torsions occur when the bowel twists on itself cutting off the blood supply. Strangulations, displacements and torsions are intestinal accidents that are uncommon but are very serious in nature.
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.This is a fairly common type of colic in horses and can often be easily resolved on the property with administration of fluids and / or liquid paraffin via a stomach tube.
Enteritis – Inflammation of the intestine possibly due to bacteria, grain overload or tainted feed. Horses with enteritis may also have diarrhea. Enteritis is often hard to diagnose and may present itself similar to displacement or impaction colics.
Spasmodic colic: Spasmodic colic occurs when the bowel is contracting in an abnormal manner creating painful spasms and somewhat of an “over-active” gastrointestinal tract. Spasmodic colic’s usually respond very well to anti-spasmodic drugs along with other therapeutic products. Over excitement can trigger spasmodic colic.
See our article on horse ulcers for more information on gastric issues.
What are the symptoms and clinical signs of equine colic?
It can often be hard to catch colic in its early stages but there are certain symptoms you can look out for. It’s also important to note that symptoms vary greatly between horses so the below list is merely a guide of common things to look for when monitoring for colic symptoms.
Signs of colic include:
- Pawing – If the horse is unhappily pawing at the ground in a panicked manner
- Rolling – Again if a horse is rolling or thrashing about aggressively this could definitely be a sign of colic.
- Turning head toward flank or kicking at the stomach with their back legs.
- Loss of interest in food and water
- Absence of gut sounds – Your horse will generally have standard gut sounds such as gurgling or rumbling. While that may seem alarming when you listen closely it’s actually very normal. When these sounds are absent that is a cause for concern and often one of the first things a vet may check.
- Stretching out as if to urinate
- Elevated pulse rate
- Lack of bowel movements – Owners who are used to dealing with colic will often celebrate when their horse manures while they are monitoring them for colic symptoms.
What to do if you suspect your horse has colic?
If you see any signs of colic in your horse, remove all food, put him in a safe area, collect whatever vital signs you safely can (recent urine or manure), and call your veterinarian immediately. It’s a good idea to take and monitor your horse’s vital signs as this will help your vet determine the severity. These include:
- Specific signs of colic, and their severity
- Pulse or heart rate (beats per minute)
- Respiratory rate (breaths per minute)
- Rectal temperature
- Color of the gums (white, pale pink, dark pink, red, or bluish-purple)
- Moistness of the gums (moist, tacky, or dry)
- Digestive sounds (if any)
- Bowel movements, including color, consistency, and frequency
- Any recent changes in management, feeding, or exercise
- Medical history, including deworming and any past episodes of colic
Don’t feel that you have to walk your horse constantly or keep him standing if they want to roll. While some hand walking is okay (and helpful), calmly resting until the vet arrives is okay as well.
It’s difficult to determine if your horse is suffering from a case of severe colic or mild colic until the vet has examined the horse. Once your vet arrives they will examine your horse and determine the best course of treatment and will be able to advise if your horse will require medical or surgical treatment.
What can you do to help your horse after colic?
Early detection of colic symptoms means that the chance of recovery is much higher however it would be naive to assume that emergency surgery or death were not possibilities. If your horse has managed to make it through a case of colic there are things you can do to help your horse recover. See our entire range of products for helping your horse with colic recovery.
The PEMF and cyclonic massage in the Activo-Med Therapy System helps horses recover from a number of issues but can be helpful in colic recovery. The PEMF in particular can help to target pain relief and assist in speedy recovering from internal problems. It can also help your horse’s muscles relax and heal after a traumatic episode such as thrashing or distress from colic.
When paired with the Activo-Med Therapy system the Activo-Med Pecdominal Girth offers PEMF and massage to the pectoral and abdominal muscles. Fitting around the chest and girth area therapy can be delivered directly to the painful areas that colic impacts.
If your horse has had to undergo colic surgery they will require significant rehabilitation. The Activo-Med Therapy System can help to relieve the horse’s muscles whilst a handheld unit like the Activo-Med Handheld PEMF and Light Cluster can help assist the surgical scar to heal by reducing inflammation and will relieve pain.
Once a horse has colicked it does become one of many horses prone to colic which can impact the quality of your horse’s life. However by ensuring you keep a close eye on your horse and being aware of the early signs of colic you can repeat issues that may lead to more severe problems.