Nothing strikes dread into the heart of a horse owner like the word colic. But what is it, exactly? Colic is actually just a symptom, used to describe abdominal pain. The degree of discomfort is variable, and because we can’t just ask our horses where it hurts and how much, we have to use clues from their behavior and vital signs to help figure it out.
A horse with a mild case of colic can be reluctant to move and may be found standing apart from the rest of the herd, perhaps occasionally looking back at its flank or kicking at its belly. In more severe cases, the horse may be sweating and breathing heavily, pawing at the ground, or lying down. With extreme abdominal pain, the horse may roll and thrash violently on the ground. Often, the horse’s intestinal activity will be decreased or absent and they will not be defecating. Along with behavior, the horse’s heart rate is a key indicator of the level of pain.
So what is the actual cause of this discomfort? There are many possible culprits, and veterinary diagnostics such as a rectal exam, passing a stomach tube, abdominal ultrasound, and blood work can help sort them out. Often the cause is related to the gastrointestinal system, such as an intestinal blockage caused by dry, undigested feed material or a heavy parasite load. Other intestinal causes include torsion or twisting, strangulation by a fatty tumor wrapping around the intestine, or displacement of the intestine from its usual arrangement within the abdomen. Accurately diagnosing the cause of the colic is key to successful treatment.
In all cases, pain control is essential, using the horse’s behavior and heart rate to gauge their response to treatment. Many cases require rehydration with fluids, and some cases even require referral for surgery. Early intervention and treatment greatly improves the horse’s chances of survival. Unfortunately when a horse is not responding to medical treatment and surgery is not an option, humane euthanasia may be the best choice.
The good news is that there are several ways you help prevent colic in your horse. Ensuring free access to fresh water is essential, as many cases of impaction colic occur as a result of dehydration, such as when the water trough freezes over in the winter. Eating snow alone does not provide sufficient hydration for most horses and puts them at a greater risk of colic. Good quality hay is also important, as well as avoiding sudden increases in the grain ration or other abrupt diet changes. Regular deworming and dental care are also key prevention measures.
Unfortunately, colic is quite a common ailment in horses that can be very serious and even deadly. Taking preventative steps, as well as knowing what to watch for to identify symptoms early, will help your horse live a long and happy life.
Dr. Amy Hayduk grew up in the Nass Valley of northwest BC and graduated from the Western College of Veterinary medicine as the 2014 “gold medalist” after completing a master’s degree in biochemistry at the University of Northern BC. She enjoys all aspects of mixed animal practice with special interests in small animal surgery and equine medicine.