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How to Identify and Manage Colic in Horses

How to Identify and Manage Colic in Horses

Colic is a condition that strikes dread into the heart of any horse owner. Unfortunately, colic is also one of the most common health conditions that horses experience.

In this article, we look at the signs of colic and discuss the action you should take.

What is colic?

Colic is not a specific disease.

The word, “colic” is used merely to describe any form of abdominal pain that the horse is experiencing. For example, the term colic can be used to describe the pain experienced by a mare in the latter stages of giving birth to her foal.

What causes colic?

Colic has multiple causes, including:

  • Gastrointestinal ulcers
  • Ingestion of poisonous substances or plants
  • Internal parasites
  • Pregnancy
  • Some diseases such as grass sickness
  • Sudden changes in feed
  • Twisted or displaced sections of bowel
  • Stress
  • Exercising a horse too soon after he has eaten a hard feed

What are the signs of colic?

All responsible horse owners should be able to recognize the signs of colic.

There are several forms of colic, and the horse will show different symptoms, depending on the cause of the problem.

Signs of colic include:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Standing abnormally
  • Pawing the ground
  • Rolling
  • Patchy sweating
  • Looking at the abdomen
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Distended abdomen

If your horse shows any of these symptoms, you must seek veterinary advice immediately.

What information will your vet need?

For your vet to make a preliminary diagnosis of colic, you’ll need to provide the following information:

  • Has your horse had colic before?
  • Have you changed your horse’s feed recently, including introducing haylage or new, lush grazing?
  • Have you wormed your horse recently?
  • If your horse is a mare, has she recently had a foal or is she pregnant?
  • If the affected animal is a foal, what are its age and sex?
  • If the horse is entire, is the scrotal area swollen?
  • Is your horse on medication, especially NSAID’s (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs)?
  • Are any other horses on the premises showing signs of colic?

In addition to providing this information, it’s a good idea to compile a checklist (see below) that you can fill in before your vet arrives.

This is especially useful if you run a livery yard. Keep copies of the list handy so that it’s available for all liveries.

Colic checklist

Assess the affected horse’s condition and complete this checklist:

Behavior

  1. How long has your horse been behaving abnormally?
  2. Is the horse standing up or lying down? Does he frequently change his position?
  3. Is the horse subdued and quiet?
  4. Is the horse aggressive or very unsettled?

Vital signs

Check your horse’s vital signs, and note them down:

  • Temperature (if you’re able to take it safely)
  • Gum color (Use the gums only for this, not the horse’s eyes. If your horse has got dust in his eye when he’s been rolling, the eye will appear bright red, and this is not an accurate indication of the horse’s cardiovascular function.)
  • Respiratory rate (Look at the area around the horse’s last rib and count his chest movement.)
  • Pulse (Use a stethoscope or smartphone stethoscope only if it is safe to do so)
  • Hydration (Pinch a fold of skin on the horse’s neck, and then release it. Count the number of seconds it takes for the skin to return to its usual appearance.)

Demeanor

Is the horse alert and bright, depressed, stressed, or dull and lethargic?

Appetite

Is the horse’s appetite normal, moderate, slight, or none at all?

Defecation

Has the horse passed any droppings since you noticed his colic symptoms? If so, are the droppings normal, loose, or very small and hard?

What color are the droppings?

Urination

Has the horse urinated at all since you first noticed the colic symptoms? Has the urination been normal, slight, moderate, or not at all?

Call the vet

Once you’ve completed your observations, call your vet and pass on the information you have gathered. That will allow the vet to decide whether an immediate visit is necessary.

Your vet may give you instructions as to what action you should take, or he may ask you to observe the horse for another hour or so, noting down the horse’s vital signs again.

What NOT to do

There are some things that you absolutely should NOT do if you think your horse has colic.

DO NOT:

  1. Delay contacting your vet. The more quickly the horse’s condition is diagnosed and treated, the higher his chances are of making a full recovery, especially if it turns out that surgery is required.
  2. Administer fluids. To do so creates a risk that the horse could inhale liquid into the trachea (windpipe), potentially causing breathing problems.
  3. Give your horse medication without your vet’s guidance. Some commonly used drugs may exacerbate the horse’s condition or mask the colic symptoms.
  4. Try to force your horse to remain standing. That could put you and any helpers at serious risk of injury.

What you CAN do

There are a few things you can do while you’re waiting for the vet to arrive:

  1. Walking your horse quietly in hand can be a useful distraction from the pain and will stop the horse from rolling and potentially twisting his bowel. Also, walking can help to stimulate the gut, which sometimes helps if impaction is causing the colic.
  2. Remove all hay and feed from the stable. However, you must provide water in case the horse wants a drink.

When the vet arrives

When the vet arrives, he will examine your horse and make a preliminary diagnosis of the possible cause of the colic. He will then advise you on a suitable course of action to take for treatment.

In mild cases, the vet may administer pain relief to help relax the horse. This relaxation is sometimes enough to get the gut working properly again.

For more serious cases, there’s a chance that your vet will opt to refer your horse to an equine hospital, possibly for surgery. The vet will forward the case history to the hospital so that they can prepare whatever facilities will be needed before your horse arrives for treatment. If you don’t have a trailer or horsebox, ask your vet for a contact who may be able to provide emergency transport.

In conclusion

If your horse shows any of the colic symptoms described above, assess the horse using our helpful checklist. Once your assessment is complete, call your vet with the checklist at the ready so that you can pass on the information you’ve gathered.

While you’re waiting for the vet, don’t allow the horse to eat, don’t administer any medication, including colic drenches. If possible, walk the horse around to prevent him from rolling.

Prompt action in cases of colic can save a horse’s life. Never delay seeking veterinary advice if you think your horse has colic.

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