By Karen Carlson
Colic is a scary word to horse owners. Although a common disorder of the digestive system, the term colic simply put means “abdominal pain.” The term in horses refers to a condition of severe abdominal discomfort characterized by pawing, rolling and sometimes the inability to defecate, and we all know horses poop a lot, a whole lot, 8 to 12 times a day, every day.
A pal of mine, an equine vet, just sent a reminder to customers and friends to do everything we can to prevent colic in our horses, so I thought I’d reach out to more of you and remind you of the same.
There are different types of colic depending on the cause of the condition. There is also a range and severity of symptoms. It is up to us to be aware, alert and educated.
A horse may have a mild bout of abdominal pain such as when my mare Jane ate too much pepper tree foliage and her symptoms presented in loss of appetite and lying down. Uncharacteristic of her, I called the vet right away and it resolved with a single treatment.
Other more severe cases can require surgery and, unfortunately, euthanasia may become a result. For that reason alone, all colic should be treated as an emergency.
There are various forms of equine colic. However, most horses with this condition display some or all the following symptoms:
•Anxiety or depression
•Pawing at the ground
•Looking at the flank
•Rolling or wanting to lie down
•Playing in the water bucket but not drinking
•Lack of defecation
•Lack of appetite
•Abnormally high pulse rate (over 50 beats per minute)
•Lack of normal gut noises
•Frequent attempts to urinate
consult your veterinarian for more information
Jane thankfully laid down when she experienced colic years ago and I knew immediately something was wrong. Some horses become so uncomfortable that they will throw themselves on the ground, bite their sides hard, and run anxiously. I’ve seen it, and it’s scary!
The types of colic include spasmodic or gas colic and impaction colic. Sounds simple, right? Horses can’t speak human, so remember when your children were babies and would become colicky and would cry and cry?
Think about excessive gas or constipation. Yeah, I know, it’s nothing we want to talk about, but this is what the horse is experiencing during a colic episode.
How do you know what type of colic your horse is experiencing? The typical symptoms present like this:
Spasmodic (or gas) Colic—
Sweating, sporadic gut pain, louder than typical gut sounds, overly restless and anxious, frequent attempts to roll.
— No fecal production, chronic pain in abdomen, dark mucous membranes, reluctance to eat, extended periods of laying down, impacted colon, drop in temperature (as condition progresses), often a quiet gut.
The causes are simplified as excessive gas accumulation in colon that causes acute pain for the spasmodic colic. For impaction colic, causes may include heavy internal parasitism, dehydration (not enough fluid), excessive ingestion of sand, pedunculated lipoma (fatty benign tumor of the gut), enterolith or fecalith (stones in the digestive tract).
You should become familiar with the symptoms of colic to quickly identify the condition in your horses. Once you call your veterinarian and she/he has arrived, there are a variety of diagnostic procedures he/she will do to confirm colic and further characterize its cause and severity.
The veterinarian will check the horse’s pulse, temperature, mucus membrane color, and evaluate the gut sounds you’ve described. Your vet will ask you detailed questions on the horse’s most recent behavior. The vet may sedate the horse. This will make the horse more comfortable and make it safer to perform more invasive diagnostics if needed.
The veterinarian may then perform a rectal exam. This exam allows the vet to actually feel the large colon of the horse to determine if any portions are overextended due to a buildup of gas or if a portion of the colon is stuffed to an enlarged state or even twisted.
One treatment option I’ve seen is insertion, a nasogastric (NG) tube. This is a long plastic tube that is inserted through the horse’s nostril and down her esophagus into the stomach. This allows the vet to administer fluids directly into the stomach (such as water and electrolytes or mineral oil). Jane had this procedure done to help her get all the pepper tree out of her system, worked like a charm!
Colic is nothing to be casual about. Do everything you can to prevent colic episodes. Make sure your horse drinks plenty of water, doesn’t eat anything out of the ordinary, like pepper trees, doesn’t gorge herself on anything, gets exercise regularly, and is regularly treated for parasites.
If you suspect your horse is displaying colic symptoms, seek immediate veterinary assistance. There are different treatment options for horses suffering from colic, but this is an illness in which treatment will vary on a case-by-case basis. Your vet is your best ally.