At this time of year we all wait for the inevitable bout of colics that occur. In this article we discover the different types of colic, causes and signs of colic. The term “colic” means “pain in the abdomen” and there are many causes, ranging from the mild to fatal. One of the problems with colic in horses is that it can be very difficult in the early stages to distinguish the mild from the potentially fatal. This is why all cases of abdominal pain should be taken seriously right from the start.
Types of colic
Impaction colic: This is the term used when the intestine becomes blocked by a firm mass of food. Impactions most commonly occur in the large intestine at one of the flexures. This is a fairly common type of colic which usually resolves relatively easily with appropriate treatment. However, an impaction may be just the first obvious sign in a more complicated case.
Gas colic: Sometimes gas builds up in the intestine, most commonly in the large intestine and/or caecum. The gas stretches the intestine, causing pain. Gas colics usually resolve fairly easily with appropriate treatment, although it is essential to ensure that there is no underlying reason for the problem.
Spasmodic colic: Some cases of colic are due to increased intestinal contractions, the abnormal spasms causing the intestines to contract painfully. These cases usually respond fairly well.
Displacement/volvulus/torsion (‘twisted gut”): In a “displacement”, a portion of the intestine has moved to an abnormal position in the abdomen. A “volvulvus” or “torsion” occurs when a piece of the intestine twists. The suspension of the small intestine from the mesentery and the unfixed nature of much of the large intestine predispose horses to intestinal displacements and torsions. Except in rare cases, these types of colic cause a total blockage of the intestine and require immediate surgery if the horse is to survive. In the early stages of a displacement/torsion colic, the signs may be similar to those of a horse with one of the more benign causes of colic. That is why it is important to take all cases of colic seriously, and to seek veterinary advice at an early stage.
Enteritis/colitis: Some cases of abdominal pain are due to inflammation of the small (enteritis) or large (colitis) intestines. These are serious medical cases and require immediate veterinary attention.
Gastric distension/rupture: When a horse gorges itself on grain or, even more seriously, a substance which expands when dampened like dried beet pulp, the contents of the stomach can swell. The horse’s small stomach and its inability to vomit mean that in these circumstances the stomach may burst. Once this has happened death is inevitable. If you suspect that your horse may have gorged itself on concentrate feeds, seek veterinary advice immediately.
Signs of Colic
The following list includes the most common signs:
- lying down more than usual
- getting up and lying down repeatedly
- standing stretched out
- standing frequently as if to urinate
- turning the head towards the flank
- repeatedly curling the upper lip
- pawing the ground
- kicking at the abdomen
What to do
The severity of the case will dictate what you do when you find your horse showing signs of colic. If he is behaving violently call your veterinarian immediately. Violent behaviour usually means intense pain brought on by a serious case of colic. If possible, take his temperature, pulse and respiration rates.
- Note what his appetite has been like in the past day or so, and the consistency and frequency of defecation.
- Has his water intake been normal?
- Are his gums a normal colour?
- Think about whether he has had access to any unusual feedstuffs in the past day or so, whether any medications have been administered, and whether there have been any changes in management.
Now call your veterinarian. It is important to take all food away from the horse until the veterinarian arrives. If he is nibbling at his bedding, find a way to prevent this. Walking the horse can be a useful way of distracting him from the pain, but he should not be walked to exhaustion. If the horse insists on rolling, there will be little you can do to prevent it. If possible, try to get the horse to an area where he will do himself the least damage when he rolls. But do not get hurt yourself. Do not administer any drugs until your veterinarian has seen the horse, or unless he/she tells you to do so.
Prevention of colic
If you happen to be a horse, colic is probably an unfortunate fact of life. Annual colic incidences of approximately 10% are quite common. Listed below are some of the management factors which are thought to reduce colic incidence. Horses which fall into high-risk categories, such as stabled horses in intense training and fit horses recently injured, should be monitored particularly closely.
allow as much turnout as possible
maintain a regular feeding schedule
ensure constant access to clean water
provide at least 60% of digestible energy from forage and provide access to forage for as much of the day as possible
do not feed excessive digestible energy
do not feed moldy hay or grain
do not feed or water horses before they have cooled out
maintain a consistent exercise regime
make all changes in diet, exercise level and management slowly
control intestinal parasites and assess efficiency periodically.