The term colic is generally understood by horse owners and vets alike to mean any type of pain or discomfort in the stomach of the horse, although it can be caused by several different factors. Some horse are more prone to problems with colic while other horses, on the same pasture and getting the same types of feed will have no problems whatsoever. It is likely that there are some breed differences as well as hereditary components to horses with constant colic and research is ongoing.
Colic can range in severity from a slight pain and annoyance to the horse right up to a fatal blockage of the gastro-intestinal tract. Since there are many different types of colic the first step is to understand what is the cause, then choose the correct treatment and prevention method.
Gas colic is one of the most common types of colic in horses. This occurs when the gas that is produced during the digestive process becomes trapped in either the large intestine or the caecum. The caecum is the large pouch located after the stomach that digests the highly fibrous materials. When this gas builds up it stretches the intestines, causing pain and discomfort. Usually with a bit of exercise and movement the gas will escape and the situation will clear itself.
Impaction colic, like gas colic, will often respond well to natural digestive movements of the large intestine or medical treatments. This occurs when a mass of digested material lodges in some area of the large intestine. Impaction colic and gas colic may occur together, and they can be very painful to the horse as well as serious if the blockage is not cleared. Infections of the intestines and colon, called enteritis and colitis, require veterinary care to correct the problem, but are not usually fatal or life threatening if treated early.
The fatal types of stomach pains or colic include vulvulus or twisting of the intestines which causes a complete blockage that will not allow any food or gas to pass the blockage. A rupture of the stomach can also occur if the horse eats a large amount of dry feed, especially beet pulp, and it swells in the stomach, stretching the stomach walls beyond their capacity. Since a horse cannot throw up it must pass everything through the intestines, which cannot happen fast enough to relieve the stretching from the swelling food. Once the stomach ruptures death usually follows within a few hours.
Typical signs of colic of any type include restlessness, rolling over, lying down and getting up repeatedly, pawing at the ground, kicking at the stomach with the hind legs, standing with the legs stretched out, looking towards the flank and lack of digestive sounds when listening over the stomach area. Some horses will also curl up their top lip and stand with the head extended.
Treatment for colic depends on the severity of the symptoms. If the horse is anxious or panicking, immediately contact the vet. Remove all feed but allow the horse access to water. Keeping the horse moving will help prevent rolling plus it may also help to release the trapped gas and digested material. Slowly walk the horse, never run or jog the horse until the situation has been resolved. The vet will administer medications or may have to perform surgery if there is a torsion or twist in the intestines.
Prevention including monitoring feed and exercise, moistening feed and even adding additional hay or forage to the diet is usually recommended once a horse has had a bout with colic.