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Horse Colic – Symptoms, Causes & Treatment 

by Jil Wiedemann
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Colic — this word can quickly raise alarm with horse owners. If a colic is suspected, it has to be dealt with quickly as it can be fatal. In this article you will find out which signs are typical for colic in horses and what to do if you suspect colic.

What is Colic in the Horse?

Colic is not a stand-alone disease. It is an umbrella term for all types of abdominal pain in horses that are caused by diseases or upsets of the gastrointestinal tract. Colic can consistently affect any horse of any age. There are different types of colic, triggered by different causes. The intestinal colic is most common. Here, too, are different kinds. You will find other types of colic later in the article.

First aid measure

If your horse shows the first symptoms of colic, you have to be quick! A veterinarian should be contacted immediately to inspect the horse. Until the vet arrives, you should keep a close eye on your horse and regularly check its pulse, breathing and temperature. The time until the first steps are taken and the first medication is administered is of great importance.

 Average values of a healthy adult horse:

  •  Pulse: 28 to 40 beats per minute
  • Respiration: 8 to 16 breaths per minute
  • Temperature: 37.5 to 38.2 degrees Celsius

 It is also important that your horse does not eat or drink during this time. Keep your horse on the move, preferably by leading or lunging. This keeps the circulation going and stimulates the intestinal activity. Your horse may roll or lie down, but you should motivate him to get up again. The theory that rolling or lying down during colic can lead to intestinal constriction has been widely rejected. In most cases, intestinal spasms are the cause of colic, which already carry the risk of intestinal twists. Also observe your horse’s droppings and urine.

What ist a colic in horses?

Colic in horses is any form of abdominal pain or discomfort in a horse. There are several types of colic. The most common variant is intestinal colic

The different types of colic

 Impaction in the large intestine

The cause of a blocked large intestine is usually due to poor keeping or feeding habits. If a horse does not get enough hay, eats too much straw or drinks too little water, the intestinal contents become too solid and can no longer be passed out. What’s so dangerous about this is that large intestine blockages tend to be mild and can go on for days. Complaints appear in phases. The good thing, however, is that chances of recovery are good.

 Impaction in the small intestine

A blockage in the small intestine can be caused by roundworms or natural bottlenecks in the intestine. The most common trigger of such a colic, however, is incorrect feeding, such as grass clippings. In addition, fat tumours on the small intestine can be possible causes. This type of colic usually requires surgery. However, the chances of recovery are good.

Horses eating hay: it prevents colics

If a horse does not get enough hay, too much straw or too little water, the intestinal contents become solid and cannot be excreted.

 Spasmodic colic

As the name suggests, the horse suffers from severe spasms that come in spurts. In this case, too, incorrect feeding can be the cause. Other possible reasons are stress, badly chewed feed or severe worm infestation. A spasmodic colic may go away by itself in the early stages, but if it doesn’t, a vet can help with treatment and medication.

Gas colic

Here, too, the name gives it away. Gas colic is triggered by flatulent feed such as grass cuttings, turnips, clover, soft bread or potatoes. You should constantly check your horse’s feed, because fungi and bacteria may also contaminate the feed and cause gas colic. Your horse will  look bloated and the size of its belly is clearly enlarged.

Sand colic

Sand colic is caused by too much sand in the large intestine. This can occur as a result of eating on heavily grazed or short pastures, so the horses pick up a lot of dirt when they eat. The sand in the large intestine causes it to twist. An operation is inevitable.

Twisting of the gut

This occurs when part of the intestine is filled with too much gas and causes it to become buoyant. If at the same time another part of the intestine drops it can cause the intestine to raise in the abdomen and twist on itself. In most cases, a gassy intestine is due to abnormal fermentation. Here, too, surgery is often unavoidable. You can prevent colic by always feeding your horse the same food. Sudden changes in diet can cause an imbalance of bacteria in the horse’s stomach and intestines.

Gastrointestinal Obstruction

In case of an intestinal obstruction, the intestine cramps and the intestinal muscles can no longer work. As a result, your horse can no longer defecate, its faeces accumulate and its intestinal contents are stuck and cannot be moved any further, which causes the intestine to be strangulated. In some cases, tumours can be the reason. The vet can find out more with a small operation. Chances of recovery are quite good if detected early.

Stomach overload

Stomach overload can be caused by too much fermenting or expanding food. In this case, a healthy passage and digestion of feed are disrupted, the stomach overstretches. In other cases, a stomach overload may be caused by an intestinal obstruction. The intestinal contents could not be passed on, get stuck and back up towards the stomach. This overload is very painful for horses. They try to retch. Horses, however, are unable to vomit. The stomach presses on the diaphragm. This causes breathing problems and can affect the circulation.

This form of colic is particularly life-threatening. Veterinary help must be called as quickly as possible to prevent the stomach from rupturing due to overstretching. In the case of a rupture, the entire contents enter the abdominal cavity of the horse, then usually nothing more can be done for the animal.

Horse Colic: Horse eating an apple

Stomach overload can be caused by too much fermenting or swelling feed. In this case, the forwarding and digestion of the feed is no longer possible properly.

Colic in horses: typical signs & symptoms

Many different symptoms can indicate colic. If you notice your horse behaving strangely or differently than normal, keep a close eye on it. Even small behavioural abnormalities can indicate abdominal pain. Every horse is different. Some show hardly any symptoms despite enormous pain, others show very clearly that something is bothering them. Here you have to be able to judge your own horse best.

In most cases the following Symptoms appear

  • Restlessness and frequent pawing
  • Heavy sweating / circulation problems / breathing problems
  • Kicking at the belly
  • Frequent rolling
  • Cramping of the abdominal muscles
  • Refusal to eat
  • Eyes are open, mouth is dry
  • Your horse sits on its rump or lies on its back
  • Increased pulse
  • Reddened mucous membranes
  • Frequent flehming

If the symptoms eventually subside or even stop altogether, please do not assume that your horse is getting better. This course of symptoms is normal in colic. At this stage, it cannot happen fast enough. Your horse must be taken to a clinic immediately.

How colic develops?

Colic in horses can have many different causes. The most common causes are mistakes in the feeding or stress.

Common causes of colic in horses

When listing the different types of colic, it already became apparent that there can be many different causes of colic in horses. Every horse is an individual, and this also applies to the sensitivity of their gastrointestinal tract — some are much more susceptible than others.

The main causes are feeding errors or gas-producing feed. Your horse should always have enough roughage and water. Take care to minimise flatulent feeds such as (lawnmower) grass, corn, turnips or soft bread. Other common causes of colic are stress or severe diet changes.

Gas colic or cramping colic are often the precursor to an intestinal twist. The intestine is not fixed in the abdominal cavity, which is why it can move. The gassed-up part and the overloaded part of the intestine can easily slip and become twisted.

Lack of exercise and changes in the weather can also be among the causes of colic.

Colic in Horses – Treatment by a vet

 If your horse shows signs of colic, do not hesitate to contact your trusted veterinarian directly. The time between detection of the symptoms and the arrival of the vet is of great importance and can be a matter of life and death. Until the vet arrives, you should lead your horse around.

 The most common first approach the vet will take is to inject antispasmodic and pain-relieving medication. As colic is often caused by cramps, this usually already helps well. Many horses recover afterwards and normal intestinal activity is restored.

 If your horse does not respond to the medication, it is unfortunately time to take him to an equine clinic. For this reason, if you suspect colic, you should make sure that you can organise transport or that you already have a trailer on site. At the clinic further helpful medication can be administered. If the horse does not respond to these either, the colic must be treated surgically.

How long does colic last?

After treatment by the veterinarian with antispasmodic and analgesic medications, symptoms should usually subside quickly and intestinal activity normalizes. Your horse should get better quickly. If not, your horse may need surgery.

Recovery process: When will the horse be well again?

 After veterinary treatment with antispasmodic and analgesic medication, symptoms should subside quickly and the intestinal activity normalises. Your horse should get better quickly and you should be able to exercise him after one week.

If your horse needs surgery the healing process will vary depending on the severity of the colic and the procedure.

Horse Colic: Vet next to stomach

The veterinarian will give you more information, you should always  consult with him regarding food, medication and the start of training.

Correct feeding after colic

 Since horses are individual beings with different needs, there is no rule of thumb for feeding them after colic. In any case, consult your veterinarian. He knows best what to do.

 It does make sense, however, to feed the horse a kind of “light diet” for the first few days. Mash or mixed feeds with a high proportion of fibre is often recommended. Looking at different types of mixed feed, bear in mind that those that are explicitly for colic patients are not always the best choice. They often contain a lot of protein and carbohydrates which are not suitable for horses with sensitive metabolism. In general, you should split your horse’s feed into three meals a day in smaller portions.

 In addition, you should always feed plenty of good hay after a colic. This will also help to increase the water intake. The hay should not be too coarse in structure and straw should not be fed at all. Especially after a sand colic, try to feed more hay than usual. This will help to remove the sand. In addition, you can feed psyllium or psyllium husks to promote the process.

 If your horse is on straw and likes to eat it, consider changing the bedding. Alternatively, your horse can stand on wood pellets or shavings. Doing so will prevent your horse from eating straw.

 In addition, you can give your horse dried brewer’s yeast. The rule of thumb is 50g per 100kg body weight. Older horses suffer from constipation more often than younger ones and should therefore always be fed the best quality hay. Treats should be avoided completely during the recovery phase after colic.

 If the colic has gone smoothly and could already be treated completely at home, the regeneration phase is usually relatively short. You are the best person to decide how quickly your horse can be brought back to normal training sessions. Normally, a short rest of one to two days is sufficient for recovery from the pain. After that, you can start again slowly and gradually increase the intensity. This process usually takes two to three days. Again, check with your vet for advice.

When can I ride again?

As soon as the stomach pain is gone, you can usually start exercising again slowly. Depending on the severity of the colic. Usually after 3-7 days. This should be discussed with the vet.

Preventive measures: How to prevent colic in horses

 The most common cause of colic in horses is incorrect feeding, so reduce the risk by paying attention. Serious diet changes should only be made in an emergency and slowly. Especially older or stressed horses tolerate feed changes less well than young and healthy horses. In spring, you should therefore start your horse slowly on grass and not simply put it out on the beautiful, green paddock.

 Your horse should always have enough hay and water available. It should never have to go more than four hours without fodder. Hay should be as dust-free as possible. Never skimp on the quality of hard feed. This should be divided into three smaller meals a day and always given after feeding hay. In general, you should constantly check both hard feed and roughage. Mouldy feed can be very dangerous for the horse.

In addition, dental checks are useful. You should also regularly take faecal samples and deworm in due course.

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