Colic 101: Causes, Diagnosis, Treatment & Prevention

colic-3Colic is a very common and well known ailment that most horses will experience at least once in their life. Colic is comparable to a typical stomach ache, however in severe cases it can lead to the twisting of intestines or a blockage in the intestines. Horses are not the only ones susceptible to colic, humans and dogs may even experience it as well. However, it is more common among mammals that do not have the ability to vomit, such as rabbits and horses. Because a horse’s anatomy prevents them from vomiting, their stomachs find other ways to alert the body that something is not agreeing. While there are many causes of colic, summer is widely known as colic season for a reason. As we enter into the warmer temperatures, it’s important to know the basics of colic, how to detect it, treat it and prevent it.

Causes

As mentioned, there are many common causes of colic. Symptoms and frequency however, vary from horse to horse. The cause of colic is one of the most important factors to determine, not only for detection purposes, but also because the cause is what typically leads to serious injury or death, not the pain from colic itself.

Inconsistent feeding: Feeding horses at scattered times can cause stress for the horse, and disrupt their digestion.

Stress: Much like humans, when horses are stressed, they can experience stomach pains.

Improper cooling: Letting your horse back out to pasture or immediately back to their stall after a hard workout can cause colic. Similar to people not cooling off after a workout, horses need time to cool off before returning to food, water and standing in their stall.

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Dental issues: If a horse does not have properly cared for teeth, they may have difficulty chewing food. This can cause a blockage, which leads to colic.

Humidity: Linked to stress and improper cooling, humidity can make horses more susceptible to colic.

Improper consumption: Horses eating food they cannot digest will cause colic. These foods include human food and natural materials, such as dirt or sand.

horse eating dirt

Lack of water: Dehydration can lead to colic.

Detection

There are many signs of colic, which is good for horse owners. The sooner colic is detected, the better the chances of a successful recovery. Some horses may show some of the following signs even when not suffering from colic. It is important to know your horse’s natural personality in order to properly detect colic.

Not eating: If a horse is experiencing colic, they may not eat hay, grass or grain.

Not drinking: Refusal to drink is another sign of colic.

Rolling & Stretching: Taking unnatural poses, such as a catlike stretch, and excessive rolling are signs that a horse is uncomfortable. Horses usually show these symptoms because they are trying to stretch out their stomach to get rid of the pain.

horse-rolling

Lying down: Many horses, especially older horses, lay down often. If the horse suspected of having colic does not often lie down, the cause may be colic.

Biting/ Pawing: Showing distress is another way a horse can express colic. Horses commonly bend over and bite at their stomach if there is pain there.

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Gut sounds: The absence of digestive sounds is often a sign of colic. Because horses are grazers, their stomachs are often making soft sounds of digestion. To see if there are sounds of digestion present, place an ear on the side of the horse’s stomach and listen for gurgling. Be sure to check both sides and do so every ten minutes to see if there are any changes.

Treatment

Severity of colic can range from minor to life threatening. It is important to act quickly and as soon as possible with colic. If you suspect your horse is experiencing colic, call your vet immediately and follow the steps below.

Seek veterinary advice: Veterinarians are no strangers to colic. It is important to use them as an asset; they may suggest treatment similar to what is listed here. They may also suggest pain medication or more invasive measures for severe cases. In some instances, pain medicine can help the horse relax and let the intestines return to their normal activity. Do not administer pain medication without the presence or consent of a veterinarian. In severe cases, a horse may require surgery in order to untangle intestines or remove blockage.

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Standing/ Walking: It is important that you begin walking your horse. Walking can relieve them of stress and help stretch out their intestines without harming them. If for some reason your horse cannot walk or refuses to, be sure to keep them standing. If the horse lies down, they will likely attempt to roll to relieve pain, which can cause displacement and tangling of the intestines.

Remove food: Horses with colic may not eat for a while and then slowly begin attempting to eat again. This can sometimes lead to further blockage and cause a more severe case of colic. Until treated, remove grain and hay from the horse.

Water: Allowing the horse access to water is suggested; however monitor the amount they consume. Do not allow the horse to consume too much water too quickly. Sucking in air can lead to gas and worsen the colic. This is something that should always be practiced, because it can also be a cause of colic.

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Make comfortable: If the horse seems to be stressed, remove the horse from any disruptions and make them as comfortable as possible. If it is hot in the barn, bring them outside where it may be cooler or set up a fan for them. Taking simple measures may help the issue.

Bran-mash: Some horse owners make bran-mash for horses with colic. Once a horse feels better, offering them bran-mash will not only relieve hunger, but can also help break up any blockage that may be remaining.

Prevention

Horse owners whose horses are very susceptible to colic need to be sure they take into account all measures of precaution. Even horses who do not suffer from colic often should follow basic prevention methods, as even one case of colic could be life threatening. It is suggested to practice as many of the following prevention tips as possible.

Feeding Measures: Keep feeding consistent and on time regardless of the day or season. Be sure to make any diet changes as gradual as possible. Abrupt changes can seriously harm a horse’s digestive tract along with causing stress on the animal. Because horses are grazers, it is important to consistently keep a forage-based diet. Horses are designed to digest hay and grass, not pellets. Keeping their diet primarily forage will decrease the chances of blockage. Keeping horses’ feed off of dirt and sand is also a measure than can be taken to prevent improper digestion. Be sure to always examine hay before giving it to the horse; if the hay has mold, do not give it to the horse. Mold can be detected by an unnatural heat coming from the hay. Sometimes an odd odor or mildew may also be present.

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Water Measures: Not only should constant access to water be a priority, but the water should also not be severely warm or cold. Cool or room temperature water is suggested. It is also important to be sure the water is clean and clear of anything that may cause blockages, for example be sure the water is clear of any hay or shavings.

Cooling out: Especially in the summer months, be sure your horse is properly cooled before returning them to their stall or pasture. Riding in extreme weather conditions is not recommended, especially in the summer months.

Bran-Mash: Replacing bran-mash with grain occasionally in the summer/winter months on extremely uncomfortable days is an option.

Teeth: Horses with healthy teeth are less likely to suffer from colic due to the inability to properly chew their food. Teeth should be examined every 6 to 12 months depending on age.

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Vigilance: Early detection comes from constantly checking for colic symptoms. By catching colic early, the chances of recovery are significantly increased.

By keeping an eye on your horse, acting quickly and taking preventative measures, it is relatively easy to prevent and treat horses for colic. If you have a tip for preventing or detecting colic, please tell us in the comments below.

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