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Colic is a word we are all too painfully familiar with.   The word colic is actually a descriptive term for a symptom of more often than not acute abdominal pain, invariably involving the gastro-intestinal tract.   The potential causes of this pain are many and always present a challenge to both owner and vet.   Some causes will require surgery and others can be managed with medical treatment.


Signs of colic:


These are many and varied.   It is essential that as a horse owner you are familiar with the normal behaviour of horses in order to assess these signs.   For example a horse rolling is a sign of colic, but can you differentiate this behaviour against when a horse normally rolls to scratch its back?


1. Reluctance to eat (anorexia)

2. Turning to look at their sides (flank watching)

3. Stamping front feet/kicking at their abdomen.

4. Stretching or looking uncomfortable when passing droppings or urinating.

5. Horse lies down repeatedly/ rolls violently without shaking afterwards.

6. Sweating up.

7. Showing excessive lip curling

8. Lack of droppings/small scant piles of droppings.




The majority of colics are associated with a disruption in the normal movement and function of the guts.   This can be brought about from diet, management, parasites and internal events such as a twist/torsion or obstruction.


Types of colic:


1. Pelvic flexure impaction.  

This is relatively common and occurs due to food impacting in a location of the large intestine called the pelvic flexure.   This is a 180 degree turn in the path of the intestine so it is relatively easy for a blockage to occur.   It commonly occurs after the horse eats a lot of straw, is on box rest or has a problem with its teeth and is unable to chew food properly.   More often than not it is easily treatable medically.   Some severe impactions can be life threatening and require surgery.


2. Spasmodic colic.  

This is by far the most common type of colic we see.   It is associated with an increase in the activity of the intestines associated with a change in diet/management.   This often causes collections of gas to build up in the intestines.   It is often likened to trapped wind.   Walking the horse around to encourage the passage and release of this gas is advised along with seeking veterinary attention if particularly painful or unresponsive.


3.   Sand Impaction.  

This is typical in horses grazed on very sandy/dirty areas.   The ingested dirt and sand is abrasive to the gut lining and can cause diarrhoea.   Inflammation follows and the gut movement slows down, causing the sand/dirt to accumulate.   Laxative treatment may be initiated, sometimes surgery may be needed.


4.   Enteroliths.  

These are round balls of minerals which build up over time and can reach a size that can cause a blockage.   They are a similar entity to bladder stones or kidney stones.   They are uncommon in the UK, but once diagnosed need surgery to remove them.


5.   Parasites.  

Tapeworms, round worms or cyathostomes can all cause colic if in large numbers.   The mechanism is usually through the presence of the worms causing a physical obstruction.   Cyathostomes cause a problem through the damage caused when the larvae emerge at the same time from the intestinal wall.


6.   Left dorsal displacement.  

This occurs when a loop of the left dorsal colon becomes hooked between the spleen and the nephrosplenic ligament.   Sometimes exercise and treatment with phenylephrine can cause the spleen to contract and release the colon.   However, sometimes surgery is needed.


7. Torsion.  

Various parts of the intestine can twist around on themselves.   This is usually an extremely painful condition and deterioation is rapid.   Surgery is the only option for these cases.


8.   Intussusception.  

This is when a piece of the intestine 'telescopes' inside itself, thus affecting the blood supply.   This is a common condition in foals.   It requires urgent surgery.  


9.   Diseases and conditions of other internal organs can cause colic signs.  

These include the kidneys, liver, spleen, ovaries and testicles.


As mentioned earlier a lot of cases of colic are able to be treated medically.   Usually an injection of a drug to relax the 'over active' intestines is given, this reduces the painful spasms and makes the horse more comfortable.   This allows the gut to recover and usually within 24-48hrs the horse is completely recovered.


As veterinary surgeons there are several things we look for to decide if a horse requires surgery:


1. An elevated heart rate, this is a reliable indicator that there is a lot of pain present.

2. The gums appear purple, this indicates that there is a disruption in blood perfusion and the possibilty of toxic changes occuring throughout the horses body.

3. Presence of abnormal findings on rectal examination.

4. Rapid deterioation in symptoms.


Colic surgery can only be performed in specialist centres equipped with operating theatres and intensive care facilities.   The decision to operate is one that is never taken lightly.   Firstly it is an expensive procedure and costs of £2000-3000 are normal.   General anaesthesia is not without its own risks, especially in ill horses.   Finally the severity of the internal problem is never fully known until the abdomen has been opened up,   as a consequence some situations maybe hopeless and untreatable.   The point we are trying to highlight is that albeit successful a lot of the time, colic surgery is never guaranteed to produce a positive outcome.


Colic is a potentially life-threatening disease.

Horses showing signs of colic require immediate veterinary attention and treatment.


Care must be taken if your horse is rolling.   It will have no regard for you or others so this situation can be extremely dangerous.   BE CAREFUL.


How to prevent colic:


Some causes of colic cannot be prevented.   However, there are some steps you can take to minimise the risks.


1. Safely store feed away so an escaped horse cannot gorge on grain or carbohydrate rich feed.

2. Do not allow access to mouldy or poor quality feed.

3. Feed horses at the same time each day.   Horses digestive systems are very sensitive to subtle management changes.

4. Worm your horse regularly to prevent parasite infestations.

5. Feed a minimal amount of grain/carbohydrate rich feed.

6. Feed the same food, do not chop and change your horses diet.   If changes need to be made then it should be done gradually.


If you have any queries about the information covered, please don't hesitate to contact us.


For more information please view the following link www.liv.ac.uk/equinecolic/

This will take you to the University of Liverpool colic website which is excellent.


This site has been designed as a source of scientifically-based information about equine colic. The aim of the site is to meet the needs of both horse owners and veterinary surgeons who wish to be better informed.


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