What is Horse Colic? How to Identify it and Treat it

What is Horse Colic? How to Identify it and Treat it

Posted by Green Mountain Horse and Tack on 31st May 2022

Horse colic is a painful condition in the horse's abdomen. It can be caused by anything from eating too fast to an infection or parasite, but most often it is due to irritable bowel syndrome followed by gas accumulation and constipation.

This article will describe for the horse owner what horse colic is, how it can be identified, and how it can be treated. Horse Colic indicates a painful problem in your horse’s abdomen.
Signs that indicate possible colic

Behavioral signals are often the first signal your horse may be colic. These can include abnormal eating habits, restlessness, pawing at the ground, and rolling. A horse often keeps extending his neck and head to one side when colic and may appear to bit or flank their belly or flank.

Non-behavioral symptoms of colic include a heart rate over 45 to 50 beats per minute, tacky gums and off-colored mucous membranes. Manure signals of colic include mucus coated manure, little or no passing of manure and smaller than normal fecal balls.

Types of colic

Impactions occur when feed material builds up in a part of the gut (usually the colon) and the horse can’t easily remove it. Pain occurs as the gut wall stretches and strongly contracts trying to push the feed through the colon.

A horse with impaction colic will usually have discomfort in the abdomen. The pain can be so bad, sometimes, that the horse will refuse to eat and might even stop drinking. When a veterinarian diagnoses this type of colic, they will often need to schedule an intervention such as a scope exam or surgery to attempt at removing the obstruction from the gut.

The causes of impaction colic are usually one of the following: coarse feed (poorly chewed), dry feed, poor water intake; dehydration, poor motility, or a block in the digestive tract.

Gas Colic

There are a few different causes of gas colic in horses. One of the most common causes is excessive gas production by the microbes in the colon. This can be caused by dietary changes, or feeds that are highly fermented. Gas stretching the gut wall can also cause mild to moderate pain, and in some cases, the colon may move out of its normal place.

Colon shift

The horse’s long colon sometimes moves from its original position which often leads to impactions and gas build up. These shifts often cause more severe or prolonged pain. Colon shift also requires emergency surgery in some cases. When the colon twists, it can damage or kill the colon by stopping blood flow and oxygen availability. Large colon twists cause severe pain and illness as toxins enter the gut.

Poor motility

A common cause of colic is poor motility. Motility refers to the normal contractions of the digestive tract that keeps the poop flowing. This can be caused by infections in the gut or abdominal cavity, toxins coming from the gut, or problems with the nerves that control digestion. Poor motility can stop food from moving through the intestines, and as fluid builds up to try to move the food, the horse may become dehydrated and in shock. The fluid stretching the stomach can cause pain, and if it continues to build up, the stomach may burst.
Poor blood supply to the belly

A horse can have poor blood supply to the belly for a couple of reasons. Older horses may get fatty tumors in and around the gut. They can wrap around the small intestine and reduce blood flow. These tumors are called lipomas, which are not harmful but they can hinder blood flow by trapping the blood vessels. Parasites may move through the blood veins and cause direct damage to them or indirect damage to the gut.
Your horse is colic: What should you do?

If your horse is colic, or you suspect colic, you should walk it to provide pain relief and encourage motility. If the horse feels better after walking, continue walking it. However, stop walking the horse if it seems worse or if you detect signs of rib pain, foot pain, or muscle pain. If you suspect colic in a horse who has not been observed for a few hours, or if the colic is severe and not improving, call your vet.

While waiting for your veterinarian…

If your horse is colic, the best thing you can do is remove the horse's feed and take its vitals. This will help your veterinarian determine how severe the colic is. If it's safe to do so, walk your horse to help motility and prevent rolling. Only walk if it makes your horse feel better, and never walk until you or your horse tire.

What to expect from my vet
The veterinarian will also assess the horse's heart status and identify signs of shock or toxemia. Depending on your case, the veterinarian may then pass a nasogastric tube. This narrow, long tube runs from the nostrils to the stomach. The veterinarian can use the tube to give mineral oil, water, and/or other laxatives. Mineral oil and laxatives may relieve an impaction, and water can rehydrate your horse.

A rectal exam allows the veterinarian to palpate the back half of the gut. Sometimes a veterinarian can feel an impaction if they are concerned about infection or damage in the gut. They will then pass a needle into part of your horse's large intestine which is called the cecum. The veterinarian will then try to collect fluid for testing if they are concerned about infection or damage in the gut.

If your veterinarian is concerned about infection or damage in the gut, she/he may stick a needle in the gut and try to collect fluid for testing.

There is nothing more frustrating than having your horse colic. Horse Colic is a painful condition that can be hard to identify. Luckily, horse colic has many common causes and treatments so it’s not difficult for your veterinarian to determine the problem and provide relief. If you suspect your horse may have colic and they are in severe pain, contact a vet immediately!