Colic 101: Signs, Types, What to Do and How to Prevent

Colic 101: Signs, Types, What to Do and How to Prevent

Equine colic covers a multitude of abdominal and intestinal problems in horses. Recognizing the early signs of colic can lead to quicker recovery.

generic dun horse (Credit: Nadine Klein )

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In this article, we cover:

What is colic? 

The word “colic” simply refers to abdominal pain. 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. It can also include stomach ulcers, uterine pain in pregnant or post-foaling mares and pain associated with disease in organs of the abdomen.

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. All colics 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.

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.

Colic in Horses

Colic remains a major cause of sickness and death in horses.

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. 

Signs of Equine Colic

Colic presents itself differently in every horse, and the severity of the symptoms varies. These signs are not specific for any particular type of colic and no colicky horse is likely to show all of them. Know how your horse acts normally to recognize anything unusual. 

The most common signs of colic are:

  • Turning the head toward the flank

  • Groaning

  • Yawning

  • Pawing

  • Kicking or biting at the abdomen

  • Stretching out as if trying to urinate without doing so

  • Repeatedly lying down and getting up, or attempting to do so

  • Rolling, especially violently

  • Sitting in a dog-like position or lying on the back

  • Backing into a corner or post

  • Lack of appetite

  • Putting head down to water without drinking

  • Lack of bowel movements

  • Absence of or reduced digestive sounds

  • Sweating excessively

  • Rapid respiration or flared nostrils

  • Elevated pulse rate (greater than 52 beats per minute)

  • Depression

  • Lip curling (Flehmen response)

  • Cool extremities

If you think your horse is colicking, it's best to call the vet right away.

What to Do If Your Horse is Colicking

Remember that all colics are emergencies and a veterinarian should be contacted as soon as possible. Provide the veterinarian with as much information over the phone as you can. This should include:

  • Clinical signs (pawing, sweating, rolling, etc.), 

  • Horse’s rectal temperature (normal between 98 to 101.2 degrees Fahrenheit)

  • Horse’s heart rate (normal is 30 to 40 beats per minute)

  • Horse’s gum color (normally pink, but might be blue if the horse is in shock or dark red if the horse is toxic)

Use this guide for taking a horse’s vital signs.

Can a horse eat while it is colicking?

Do not allow the horse to eat hay or grain while you are waiting for the vet. In severe colic, the horse will not want to eat, but in a mild colic or during periods of low pain, the horse might attempt to eat. Although interest in feed is a good sign, it could make the colic more severe or interfere with oral treatments. If nibbling a little green grass seems to help, that is OK, but do not allow access to hay or grain. 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.

Should you walk a horse with colic?

Long-term walking can actually tire a horse, so do it only 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. Unless specifically instructed to do so by your veterinarian on the phone, do not medicate the horse 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.

Should you let a horse with colic roll?

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. Most twists and displacements occur while the horse is standing, and rolling is an attempt to get comfortable. The real problem with horses rolling, especially uncomfortably, is that they are very likely to injure themselves or their handlers, and they expend huge amounts of energy.

Should you let a horse with colic lay down? 

Remember that a horse lies down and attempts to roll to relieve pain and 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 lie down again, leave him alone. If he constantly gets up and down and tries to roll frequently, walk him around.

Pay Attention to Manure

While the horse is colicking, note any unusual character, color or composition of the horse’s manure and the frequency of defecation or urination. 

Also, note if the abdominal girth has changed during the colic episode, especially if it is enlarged. Note the 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.

Types of Horse Colic

There are three main types of colic:

  1. Gas colic

  2. Obstructive lesions

  3. Functional obstructions

Common Causes of Colic

  • Obstruction or impaction

  • Disruption of blood supply (caused by torsion or twist)

  • Gastrointestinal distension due to gas buildup

  • Inflammation of bowel wall

  • Parasite infection

  • Lack of dental care and/or improperly chewed food

  • Confinement or restricted mobility

  • Poor-quality hay

  • Inadequate water consumption

  • Poor management practices

  • Inconsistent feeding times or amounts

Colic Prevention

Although not every case of colic is avoidable, good management techniques can aid in prevention.

Feeding

  • Stick to a daily routine, including feeding and exercise schedules.

  • Feed a high-quality diet of free-choice roughage.

  • Avoid feeding excessive grain and energy-dense supplements.

  • Avoid putting feed on the ground, especially in sandy soils.

  • Because horses were designed by nature to eat several small meals, divide the daily ration into two or three feedings.

  • Make dietary and other management changes gradually.

Exercise and Competition

  • Provide exercise daily. Change the intensity/duration of an exercise routine gradually.

  • Reduce stress. Horses experiencing changes in environment or workloads are at high risk of intestinal dysfunction.

  • Pay special attention to animals when transporting them or changing their surroundings, such as at shows.

Management and Health Care

  • Follow a regular deworming program with your vet's help.

  • Avoid medications unless they are prescribed by your vet.

  • Check hay, bedding, pasture and environment for potentially toxic substances: blister beetles, noxious weeds, plastics, etc.

  • Provide fresh, clean water. Exception: when a horse is excessively hot, give him small sips of lukewarm water until he has recovered.

  • Observe foaling mares pre- and post-partum for any signs of colic. Watch any horses that have had a previous bout with colic. They may be at greater risk.

  • Maintain accurate records of management, feeding practices and health.