Equine colic is one of the most common emergencies at LBEMC. In this article, we will give you the tools to recognize colic signs in your horses, some ideas for management strategies, and important tips for colic prevention.
What is Colic?
Colic is a general term for abdominal pain and different horses may show varying signs. Colic can be caused by a variety of gastrointestinal problems – from feed impactions to twists in the gastrointestinal tract – and signs of pain can be variable. Mild signs may include lethargy, decreased appetite, and decreased manure production. Horses may paw the ground, watch their flank, or lie down and stand up repeatedly. Horses in severe pain may roll and thrash on the ground. Your veterinarian can be a great resource if you need help in determining if you are observing signs of colic.
What to do before the vet arrives.
Once you have recognized that your horse may be colicking, call your veterinarian to let them know what is happening. There may be situations where we will advise you to give a dose of oral banamine, but please talk with your veterinarian before administering any medication. Short hand walks (10-15 min) can help stimulate the gastrointestinal tract and walking can help keep extremely painful horses from hurting themselves while rolling or thrashing. Please remove all feed from your horse’s stall or paddock and do not start to refeed your horse until you have discussed a plan with your veterinarian.
What will the vet do?
Once the vet arrives, they will generally ask for a history including the horse’s age, diet, living environment, and the onset of colic signs. Please indicate any medications that you have given your horse and if your horse has had previous episodes of colic.
Next, the veterinarian will perform a physical exam. An increased heart rate and/or respiratory rate can indicate pain. Changes in gastrointestinal sounds and mucus membrane color can also help your veterinarian assess your horse’s health. If your horse is extremely painful, your veterinarian may need to abbreviate the physical exam and history taking in order to sedate your horse and keep everyone safe.
After the physical exam, your veterinarian will likely sedate your horse to pass a stomach tube and perform a rectal exam. They may also give a medication that relaxes the gastrointestinal tract and banamine, a pain reliever.
The rectal exam allows your veterinarian to palpate the organs within the abdomen. They are evaluating for gas distended large intestine, feed impactions, a displacement of the large intestine, the presence of enlarged small intestine, and for any manure in the small colon or rectum. This can help the veterinarian decide on further treatment. For example, feed impactions can often be treated with water and laxatives (e.g. mineral oil or Epsom salts) through the stomach tube, whereas small intestinal problems may need to be referred to the hospital.
Passing a stomach tube is both a test and a treatment. If there is an excessive amount of fluid in the stomach, this indicates that fluid is not moving properly down the gastrointestinal tract. If there is not an excessive amount of fluid, then your veterinarian can help rehydrate your horse with electrolytes and water. They will also often add mineral oil or Epsom salts to act as a laxative. If your veterinarian uses mineral oil, you should observe oily manure about 1 day after the oil was given.
Prior to leaving, your veterinarian may give you banamine paste to administer for a few days to help keep your horse comfortable. If your horse becomes colicky again, further tests including blood work, an abdominal ultrasound, analysis of abdominal fluid, and abdominal x-rays. Further treatment may also be required which can include intensive care in a hospital setting or in rare cases surgery.
Colic has many different causes, and there is no way to prevent all types of colic. However, there are many things horse owners can do to reduce the likelihood of colic. Ideally, horses should be fed on mats or in a feed tub to reduce sand/dirt ingestion. Once monthly treatment with a psyllium product can help horses pass sand, but prevention of sand ingestion is much more effective. Avoid feeding a diet of over 50% alfalfa hay, as this is associated with an increased risk of enteroliths (stones). Deworming your horse twice yearly and performing fecal egg counts are important to prevent colic due to parasies. Regular dental care (e.g. once yearly) is important to help horses properly grind their feed. Providing access to fresh, clean water at all times is imperative. You may try to encourage water consumption by providing a bucket of flavored water (e.g. with Gatorade powder, molasses, etc.) in addition to plain water. These are general recommendations and may not be appropriate for all horses; please consult with a veterinarian if you have any questions or concerns.