For The Love Of Horses: Colic Remains Most Serious Horse Ailment Demanding Immediate Veterinarian Attention


Nobody wants to get a stomach ache and horses most likely least of all.


Colic, simply defined as a stomach ache, is the major cause of sickness and number one medical cause of death of horses.


Volumes of research have been conducted on colic, and bundles of books have been printed and are available for reference on the subject.

The word “colic” simply refers to abdominal pain in a horse. It covers a multitude of abdominal and intestinal problems, ranging from simple excess gas in the intestines to severe torsion or twisting of the intestines.
The word “colic” simply refers to abdominal pain in a horse. It covers a multitude of abdominal and intestinal problems, ranging from simple excess gas in the intestines to severe torsion or twisting of the intestines.


Yet, all is yet unknown, with new situations and occurrences, likely more common than not. The term “colic” means only “pain in the abdomen” or “pain in the belly”. There are many causes for such pain, ranging from the mild and inconsequential to the life-threatening or fatal.


One of the problems with equine colic is that it can be very difficult in the early stages to distinguish the mild from the potentially fatal. This is why all cases of abdominal pain should be taken seriously right from the onset.


Technically, colic refers to pain in a horse’s abdomen, although colic episodes typically reflect conditions of the horse’s colon.


While colic can include a simple blockage, a spasm in the colon/gas buildup, or torsions in the digestive tract of a horse, the vast majority of colic episodes are idiopathic, or “of unknown origin.”


“In other words, we don’t know exactly what causes a horse to colic in most cases,” admitted Dr. Tom Lenz, well-known Kansas City area equine veterinarian and author.


However, colic is often a direct result of diet, and can often by prevented,  emphasized the world recognized and honored veterinarian serving as senior manager of Veterinary Technical Services for Zoetis.


“Approximately 10 percent of all horses suffer at least one bout of colic during their lifetimes. And, a little more than 6 percent of those die, nearly twice as many horses as are affected by other diseases or injuries,” Lenz said..


“It is critical for horse owners to recognize the early signs of colic, because the sooner the horse is seen and treated, the greater his chances of recovery,” Lenz emphasized.


. All colic’s begin with mild pain and subtle symptoms. “If the horse is lucky, it will be a mild colic and resolve on its own or with moderate treatment from a veterinarian,” Lenz said.


Ultrasound is a useful diagnostic tool for diagnosing colic in horse.
Ultrasound is a useful diagnostic tool for diagnosing colic in horse.

However, the first clinical signs might be an early stage of a life-threatening colic that will eventually require extensive treatment or surgery. “Unfortunately, no one can tell at the beginning,” Lenz pointed out.


Signs of colic in the horse vary, but include not eating, yawning, restlessness, groaning, repeatedly curling the upper lip, licking at the flank, continuous or intermittent pawing, circling, backing into a corner or post, standing in a stretched position, lying down repeatedly, rolling and sweating excessively.


“Remember that these signs are not specific for any particular type of colic and no colicky horse is likely to show all of them,” Lenz advised.


“Know how your horse acts normally to recognize anything unusual,” he added emphatically.


“Remember that all colic’s are emergencies, and a veterinarian should be contacted as soon as possible,” Lenz stressed


The veterinarian should be told the clinical signs such as pawing, sweating, and rolling.  “The horse’s gum color, which is normally pink, but might be blue if the horse is in shock or dark red if the horse, is toxic,” he pointed out.


The horses should not be allowed to eat, which could make the colic more severe, or interfere with treatments. “If nibbling a little green grass seems to help, that is okay, but do not allow access to hay or grain,” Lenz said.


“If possible, move the horse to a grassy area with good footing and few obstacles. This will make it easier to handle the horse if he wants to lie down,” Lenz noted.


The big question is whether or not to walk the horse. It is commonly believed that if a colicky horse rolls, he will twist an intestine.


“That can be true in horses with severe colic where intestines are filled with fluid and devitalized. However, in the vast majority of horses, rolling is not going to twist the intestine,” Lenz noted.


“Most  twists and displacements occur while the horse is standing, and rolling is an attempt to get comfortable,” he added.


The real problem with horses rolling, especially uncomfortably, is that they are very likely to injure themselves, or their handlers, and they expend large amounts of energy.


A horse lies down and attempts to roll to relieve pain and to find a more comfortable position.


“If the horse lies down and stays down quietly, even in an unusual position, leave him alone. If he wants to get up and change positions periodically and then lay down again, leave him alone,” the veterinarian said.


“However, if the horse constantly gets up and down and tries to roll frequently, walk him around,” Lenz recommended.


Long-term walking can actually tire a horse, so should only be done when absolutely necessary to take the horse’s mind off his pain.


There is some debate as to whether or not walking stimulates intestinal motility.


“Occasionally, a horse suffering from gas colic will benefit from trotting or a trail ride, which seem to move the gas along. But, there is no evidence that walking either stimulates intestinal movement or corrects a twist,” according to Lenz.


The horse should not be medicated before the veterinarian arrives. “Many common sedatives and painkillers decrease intestinal movement and might actually make the colic worse. Others affect heart rate or lower blood pressure and can put the horse at risk of shock,” Lenz said.


He suggested owners note any unusual character, color or composition of the horse’s manure, and the frequency of defecation or urination.


It’s also advised to pay attention if the abdominal girth has changed during the colic episode, especially if it is enlarged.


Attention should be directed to frequency and intensity of the painful episodes, and whether they are continuous or increasing in severity.


“All of this information will help the veterinarian determine the cause of the colic,” Lenz said.


“Colic is a true emergency, and getting a veterinarian on the scene as quickly as possible is the key to saving the horse,” Lenz concluded.


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