Colic is one of the most common emergency conditions the horse owner and veterinarian will encounter. It is essential to understand the signs and causes of colic so that appropriate treatment can be initiated immediately. Additionally, some colics can be avoided if proper preventative measures are followed.
Colic is a general term describing abdominal pain for any reason. Usually the pain originates from the intestinal tract but problems with other abdominal organs can lead to an uncomfortable horse with classic colic signs. The sign most horses will show is abdominal discomfort by stretching or turning to look or kick their abdomen. Pawing, rolling, and sweating are signs of colic in a horse with more severe pain.
The source of the pain is usually a stretched and dilated portion of the stomach or intestine. Many conditions which cause colic will lead to abnormal motion or mobility of the intestine. Feed and gas within the intestine cannot be moved through digestive tract which stretches nerve receptors within the wall of the intestine and this is the cause of the intense pain. A vicious cycle often results because the pain itself can alter the mobility of other intestine segments to stop movement and these segments also become involved.
There are several reasons why horses are predisposed to colic. One of the most important general predispositions is domestication. Domestic horses tend to eat and are exercised according to our schedule, which usually means large and infrequent feedings, very dry feed, inconsistent feed composition, and inconsistent exercise. Grouping horses into smaller areas may cause a huge internal parasite exposure or ingestion of sand. Horses have areas within the intestine where narrowing and tight bends occur which leads to a natural place for feed to become obstructed and impacted.
The goals in treating a horse with colic are to assess the cause and severity of the case, to break the vicious pain cycle, and to combat shock in severe cases. Since many cases will show mild signs initially, but progress rapidly, veterinary attention should be sought immediately. Owners are advised to walk the horse until the veterinarian arrives because this may stimulate intestinal mobility. The veterinarian will assess the severity and causes by listening to the horse’s intestinal sounds, checking the pulse, evaluating membrane color for signs of shock, passing a stomach tube, and performing a rectal exam. Medications are given to control pain and many cases require mineral oil to coat and lubricate the intestine. In approximately 85% of the cases, intravenous fluids and surgical correction may be necessary. Colic can be a serious, sometimes fatal, disease so owners should make every effort to prevent it and be prepared should it occur. Preventative techniques include deworming with effective products at frequent intervals not to exceed every two months. Other factors, such as making any feed changes gradually, feeding consistent high quality feeds, preventing sand ingestion, bran feeding, and providing for adequate water consumption are also important preventative measures. It is difficult to be prepared for every emergency situation, but understanding the signs of colic and having a basic plan and emergency supplies available when traveling may prevent a life threatening situation.