Sunday, May 5, 2013

Horses - Colic Signs and Treatment

Horse Colic is important to me because I lost my horse Murphy to colic a little over a year ago. I've had bouts of mild colic, but never did I think I'd lose a horse due to colic.

Knowing that I am not a Veterinarian, my readers have written to ask me about colic. Since I believe all horse owners need to know more about colic, this is for you.

Above all, you should know that colic is the number one reason why veterinarians are called for horses.

Horse colic is a medical emergency, especially if the horse is exhibiting signs of severe pain. But there are many things a horse owner can do to help comfort the colicky horse and to treat mild cases of colic.

Colic Types

If one were to boil it down, there are three main types of colic: 1) tympanic colic, 2) spasmodic colic, and 3) impaction colic.

Tympanic colic is caused by a sudden increase of gas in the horse's gut. There are many reasons why a horse's gut would suddenly inflate and not be released as usual. These include change of diet, illness and a bad reaction to medication.

Spasmodic colic is most often caused by internal parasites. Spasmodic colic is a form of colic produced by contraction, or spasm, of a portion of the small intestines: It is produced by indigestible food; large drinks of cold water when the animal is warm; driving a heated horse through deep streams; cold rains; drafts of cold air, etc,

Unequal distribution of or interference with the nervous supply here produces cramp of the bowels, the same as external cramps are produced. Spasmodic colic is much more frequently met with in high­bred, nervous horses than in coarse, lymphatic ones.

Impaction colic, or obstruction colic, is caused by something blocking part of the horse's digestive tract, such as sand that the horse ate while grazing in a sandy pasture.   This is a common bowel trouble and one which is often not recognized for what it is. It is caused by overfeeding, especially of bulky food containing an excess of indigestible residue; old, dry, hard hay, or stalks when largely fed.   It is also caused by a deficiency of digestive secretions of the intestinal tracts, a lack of water, a need of exercise, medicines, etc.

How to treat a foal with colic is a little different from how to treat a horse with colic. There is a particularly deadly type of impaction colic for newborn foals called meconium colic.

The meconium is a foal's first stool. It needs to be expelled in the first 24 hours after birth. If a warm, soapy enema or a 250 ml dose of mineral oil does not shift the meconium, the foal will need surgery or die.

For more on this, please see: Horses - Colic Types and More

The moment you recognize the first signs of horse colic, the better the horse's chances of survival. Time is extremely important.

The most common visual signs of horse colic :
  • Lying down more than usual
  • Getting up and lying down repeatedly
  • Repeated lying down and rising
  • Groaning
  • Excess salivation
  • Loss of appetite
  • Pacing
  • Frequent attempts to urinate
  • Stretching
  • Flank watching: turning of the head to watch the stomach and/or hind quarters
  • Biting/nipping the stomach
  • Pawing and/or scraping
  • Pawing at the belly with a hind hoof
  • Breaking out into a sweat
  • Rolling in a controlled, leisurely fashion
  • Pulse rises to 70+ beats per minute
  • Sitting on the hind legs in the way that a dog sits
Signs that the colic is severe and that the horse is in extreme pain include:

• Thrashing desperately while rolling
• Rolling the eyes
• Racing pulse
• Sweating to the point of dripping or foaming
• Silence in the gut - a horse's gut should always make some rumbling or gurgling noises. Horses with mild cases of colic will still make some intestinal noises.

Call a Veterinarian

Even if the signs seem to be mild, it is a good idea to call the vet.

After you contacted a vet, keep an eye on your horse and remove any feed in its stall or remove them from feed. The Vet will probably give you instructions as to what to do next.

If the vet is coming out, try to remain as calm as possible so as not to panic your horse and make the situation worse.

If your horse is in a stall, remove any feed or water buckets from its stall. Get the horse clear of all obstacles. If your horse is in a pasture, move your horse to a stall without obstacles.

If you can, check the stall or pasture for fresh but dry manure. The vet may ask to see it when he or she arrives.

I've been told that rolling can sometimes help, but I wouldn't allow a coliced horse to roll. From my experience, horses that are exhibiting severe signs of pain should not be allowed to roll. Instead, just walk them slowly and quietly about. And yes, let the horse take its time.


Unless the horse has a history of colic and the owner is well acquainted with the causes of that horse's colic, let a vet diagnose just what type of colic the horse is suffering from. Diagnosis involves a rectal exam and "scoping" or passing a flexible tube down the nose and into the stomach.

Tympanic colic and spasmodic colic often treated with injections of an anti-spasmodic drug like dipyrone and analgesic drugs like xylazine.

The horse may be given IV fluids to relieve or prevent dehydration. The horse also may be given an additional gallon of mineral oil if the vet recommends it.

Spasmodic colic can sometimes go away without drugs, but this should not be relied on.

If the rectum is inflamed, this could be fecal impaction which a vet can remove manually. The horse is sedated and then the vet dons gloves and pulls the feces out. The horse is given an enema and possible IV fluids.

Impaction colic may require surgery, especially if the horse is showing signs of severe distress or the cause of the impaction is unknown.

Never guess at how to treat a horse with colic. Call a Veterinarian right away. Meanwhile, keep the horse as calm and comfortable as possible.

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