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Here’s what you need to know:

Colic can become very dangerous in a very short period of time when it is not treated in time. The pain the horses feel and the symptoms are diverse and different in every horse.  It’s always better to take a very close and detailed look at your horse.

The horse will roll from side to side, lay down, stand up and lay back down to change sides. It is almost as if he/she doesn’t know how to lay down. It might look like they are simply looking for a comfortable sleeping position, however it could be a sign for a dangerous colic. This means you have to act fast and find the cause.

  • What is colic? And how does it occur?

The term colic is usually related to any kind of stomachache in the horse. Colic can have several causes and can occur in all horse breeds and all ages. From the foal to the fully-grown horse, all are in risk of getting colic. How the colic occurs is different in every horse, since it depends on the cause itself. For example problems in the bladder or pain in the gynaecological area of the mare can lead to Colic symptoms.  The vet however can quickly detect where it originated. There are horses that are prone to colic attacks. In this case the vegetative nervous system could be unstable.  Also horses born with narrow intestines are most at risk. Unnatural forms in the stomach area where the intestine could get tangled up are also very likely to cause colic’s. Also young horses with serious worm problems are in risk of colic attacks since the worms and worm larva have damaged the walls of the intestines.

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 colic’s 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 “volvulus” or “torsion” occurs when a piece of the intestine twists. The suspension of the small intestine from the mesentery (the “net curtain”) 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.

“Unknown”: In many cases of colic it is impossible to determine the reason for the pain. Symptomatic treatment, close monitoring and attention to any adverse developments usually lead to resolution of the problem.

3. Possible Causes of Colic:

The causes of colic in horses can be diverse. Stress is one of the most common causes. When a horse is stressed the vegetative nervous system reacts immediately and puts the horse in flight mode. Adrenaline and Noradrenaline will be secreted. The blood is pumped quickly into the legs, which causes less blood to flow through the digestive system and impacts digestion itself. The rapid decrease of blood can lead to abdominal pain.

Carbohydrates are the primary source of energy in the diet of horses. Horses evolved to digest forages high in structural carbohydrates (fiber) through bacterial fermentation in a highly developed large intestine. However, the energy needs of performance horses, pregnant and lactating mares and even young, growing horses are higher than the calories supplied by a forage-only diet. To meet this increased energy demand, horses are commonly fed more energy dense feedstuffs such as grain concentrates. Grain is rich in starch and sugar, and unlike forage, it is digested with enzymes secreted in the small intestine. Surveys have indicated that horses fed large single grain meals or large volumes of grain throughout the day are more likely to colic with the primary cause due to the limited capacity of the small intestine to digest grain.

Research has shown that small volumes of grain (starch) are digested at a rate of approximately 80% in the small intestine. If the amount of starch is increased, then the small intestine becomes overwhelmed and the excess starch flows into the hind-gut where it upsets the microbial population and decreases the pH resulting in hindgut disruptions and colic. No more than 2-3 kg’s of grain should be fed in a single meal to a 450 kg horse.

4. Recognize Signs and Symptoms

A major problem for horse owners is being able to identify the signs of colic. That’s because signs can vary greatly between individuals and may also depend on the severity of the pain. However, among the more common signs are:

Early signs

  • Turning the head toward the flank
  • Pawing
  • Kicking or biting at the abdomen
  • Stretching out as if to urinate
  • Repeatedly lying down and getting up, or attempting to do so
  • Lack of appetite
  • Lack of bowel movements / few or no droppings
  • Absence of, or reduced, digestive sounds

When horse is in more severe pain:

  • Sweating
  • Rapid respiration
  • Rolling
  • Elevated pulse rate
  • Depression

5. 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 behavior usually equates with great pain, which usually equates with a serious case of colic. Time is of the essence here. Not all horses show the same severity of signs with the same type of colic, though, and some horses may become quite violent with a relatively “mild” case. If the signs of pain are less extreme, you can take a few minutes to observe the horse’s appearance and behaviour before calling the veterinarian.

  • 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.

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