What is Colic?
Equine colic is a relatively common disorder of the digestive system. By definition colic is abdominal pain most commonly caused by a problem in the gastrointestinal tract, but can also be caused by pain resulting from the liver or reproductive organs.
What causes Colic?
Colic is a clinical sign rather than a specific disease so its causes are multifactorial:
- Spasmodic/ Gas
- Displacement of intestine
- Strangulation of intestine
Why are horses so predisposed?
To understand why horses are predisposed to colic the basic anatomy needs to be understood; the digestive tract of the horse is split into two parts; the foregut and the hindgut. The foregut (comprising the stomach and small intestine) is relatively small compared to the hindgut (caecum and large intestine) hence why horses are referred to as hindgut fermenters.
The hindgut, which contains many ‘good bacteria’, is very sensitive to changes in pH and slight changes in diet can cause the flora to be over populated by ‘bad bacteria’. This leads to a more acidic environment which helps the bad bacteria proliferate; producing gas and subsequent signs of colic.
The anatomy of the caecum and large intestine also predisposes horses to impactions (build up of faces)
How can I tell if my horse has colic?
Horses have limited ways of expressing pain and so two colic episodes may present very differently or be confused with other problems such as laminitis or lameness.
Signs of colic include:
- Trying to ‘go down’
- Abrasions (as a result of rolling)
- Kicking at abdomen
What should I do if I think my horse has colic?
If horse is displaying signs consistent with mild colic (e.g. pawing at abdomen)
- do not administer any drugs (e.g. bute) unless instructed to do so as this can mask the signs and prevent an accurate diagnosis
- Remove hay and feed (not water)
- It may be helpful to walk the horse for 5 minutes every hour as this may improve gut motility
- Call the vet if not improving or deteriorating
If horse is displaying signs consistent with severe colic (e.g. recumbancy or rolling)
- Call the vet immediately and describe signs/ duration and any previous episodes
What will the vet do?
The first thing the vet is likely to do is ask about general husbandry leading up to the colic episode, paying particular attention to any recent changes in diet. They will then clinically examine the horse taking his/her heart rate, respiratory rate and use a stethoscope to listen to the horses gut sounds. Further tests may include the passing of a nasogastric tube, rectal examination or collection of a sample of abdominal fluid.
The primary aim of the initial veterinary examination will be to determine if it is a) a true colic case and b) determine if medical treatment or surgical treatment (referral) would provide the best outcome.
Treatment for Colic
There is no single treatment for colic. Each type of colic (e.g. spasmodic, gas, impaction) will have a different treatment regime.
Broadly speaking the treatment options can be divided into medical and surgical options.
Although the majority of horses will be affected by colic at some stage in their lives, fortunately the majority of cases will respond to medical therapy alone and so can be treated successfully in the field.
As mentioned there are lots of different types of colic; some types can be prevented and some can’t.
Always make sure your horse has access to clean, fresh water. Horses don’t like drinking ice cold water therefore we see more instances of impaction colic in winter!
Ensure the horse has access to enough roughage in his/her diet. This will provide the bulk needed for normal gut motility (and will help general dental health)
Make sure your horse has regular dental check-ups to ensure there are no sharp points or hooks that prevent him from grinding his food properly.