Colic is a symptom not a disease! It is a broad term describing the display of a variety of behaviours indicating pain in the abdomen.
What are the symptoms?
The symptoms of colic are extremely variable, and horses will often display similar symptoms in subsequent colic episodes.
Symptoms include (but are not limited to);
- Being “off colour” (or any change in general demeanour)
- Lying down
- Kicking at their belly
- Flank watching
- Lip curling
- Continuously lying down and standing up
- Severe cases may throw themselves down and roll
The symptoms your horse shows will depend on how stoic your horse/ pony is and the severity of colic.
What causes it?
There is a huge number of possible causes of colic and we can usually categorise them in a number of ways.
- Impaction colic; This is a partial or total obstruction of ingesta moving through the intestine; most commonly the large intestine. This can be caused by several things including stress, change in management (eg moving from shavings to straw), sudden reduction in work (ie box rest), orthopaedic pain. This type of colic can usually be palpated per rectum and often will respond to medical treatment on farm (passing a stomach tube and administering oral fluids) some more severe or chronic cases may also need IV fluids and rare cases need surgical intervention.
- Spasmodic colic; this is often due to gut overactivity. It is commonly seen after changes in feed or when there is a change in the grass. It can sometimes be accompanied by loose faeces. This is usually accompanied with sharp bouts of pain. These cases typically can be managed medically.
- Tympanic colic; also known as gas colic. This is caused by the accumulation of gas in the intestine. The degree of pain is generally related to the degree is distension (stretch) of the gut. Management of these cases vary and rely on us being able to correct the cause of the gas build up.
- Displacement; This is where a portion of the bowel moves into an unusual position. Within the abdomen The degree of pain is often related to how stretched the gut is, if there is any gas build up and if there is any compromise to the blood supply to the gut. Secondary impactions can occur. A proportion of this type of colic will require surgical correction.
- Strangulation; this is where a portion of the gut has a compromised blood supply. This is the most urgent type of colic and almost inevitably needs surgical correction. Horses are usually unrelentingly painful and become quite clinically ill very quickly and are non responsive to pain relief. The loss of blood supply can be due to the gut getting caught somewhere it shouldn’t eg through a foramen, a fatty tumour wrapping itself around a portion of the gut as well as many others
- Other potentially issues: less common causes of colic include sand colic, uterine torsion, uterine tear, peritonitis (infection of the abdominal cavity), urinary tract infection, space occupying tumours, hernias, behavioural abnormalities.
If you suspect your horse is showing any of these signs do not hesitate to call your vet - the sooner the better.
On contacting the vet they will ask you a number of questions including duration of clinical signs, what behaviours the horse is showing, severity of clinical signs, changes in management, when the horse last had a dental, amount of droppings seen in last 24 hours etc. At this stage they will advise you as to the next best step. *We will always recommend your horse be seen by a vet as there is only so much we can ascertain over the phone.*
While you are waiting for the vet there are a number of things you can do;
Remove all feed from the stable. Water can be left if the horse is standing reasonably quietly .
Walking the horse gently for 20-30 minutes may help encourage gut motility; however if a horse is behaving in a dangerous manner do not endanger yourself!
If the horse is rolling violently- do not get yourself injured! If it is possible to safely move the horse to an area where it cannot do damage to itself- either a deep bedded stable with no buckets or attachments on the walls or a sand school.
REMEMBER ; a colicing horse that is in a significant amount of pain is entirely unaware of its surroundings. Even the sweetest natured horses can cause injuries during colic episodes. The MOST important thing when handling colic horses is that you ensure your own safety- wear a helmet if concerned and if the horse is really dangerous do not enter the stable before a veterinary surgeon arrives.
What can we do when we get there?
We will always attempt to do a thorough clinical examination including evaluation of the cardiovascular system, listening to the gut sounds and temperature. If it is safe and indicated to do so we may also perform a rectal examination and pass a nasogastric tube.
When we have gathered as much information as we can we will then discuss with you what we think is going on and what your options are. As the horse’s intestines are so vast we can only appreciate a small portion of them, due to this restriction we cannot always ascertain with absolute certainty what the cause of the colic episode is- we will always offer referral to specialist facilities where they have more specialist equipment and are able to hospitalise and treat your horse either medically or surgically as necessary.
Most cases of colic can be treated medically on farm- giving a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug, giving fluids +/- electrolytes orally through a nasogastric tube, withholding feed and walking or lunging to encourage the intestines to start moving again.
Some cases of colic require more intensive medical treatment for which we will often recommend referral to a facility with the option to hospitalise cases; these cases will often get intravenous fluids and multiple doses of oral fluids as well as pain relief and any other treatments that the vets feel necessary.
A small minority of cases will need surgical correction.
Some cases of colic are not preventable. There are a few husbandry considerations that can minimise your chances of developing certain types of colic.
- Feeding; try to avoid sudden changes in feed type and quantity. Allow constant access to fresh clean drinking water. Be aware of the fact that your horse may also be eating its bedding! Especially if you have moved them from shavings to straw.
- Worming; maintain a consistent worming protocol being guided by faecal worm egg counts!
- Dental care; ensure that your horses teeth are examined by a trained Equine Dental Technician or your vet at least once every 12 months (or as advised)
- Exercise: try to maintain a consistent routine for your horse and be vigilant if a horse that is normally turned out is suddenly put on box rest. If any change in intensity or duration of work is anticipated, do this gradually.
Take home message;
- Colic is a symptom not a disease
- Always prioritise your own safety
- The sooner you ring your vet the better
- The majority of cases can be treated medically on farm
- We will always discuss all your options with you and always offer referral if we feel it is required
Remember do not panic! We will always get to you as quickly as possible