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My Horse Has Colic!

Understanding colic

Dr Joan Deetman BSc BVMS GDEd FEI Equine Treatment Vet

Colic is a condition of abdominal pain. Feed, sand, damage by parasites or changes in the position of the gastro-intestinal tract within the body may cause obstructions or break-down of gut tissues.

The pain of colic may originate from stretching of the gut walls and surrounding tissues (e.g by food or gas), by inflammation or from the break down of gut tissues.

However, it is important to remember that there are other causes of abdominal pain i.e. ‘colic’ e.g. impending birth of a foal, gastroenteritis and laminitis.

Recognition of clinical signs:

Rolling- consistently getting up and down.

Pawing at the ground, distressed, sweating on neck and flanks.

Turning head to look at abdomen, kicking at belly.

Stretching out as it to urinate but having difficulty.

Increased heart rate. ( normal HR: 30-40 beats/minute)

Foals may lie on back with all four legs up in the air.

If the colic is low grade but ongoing, signs may be subtle, e.g. teeth grinding, pain after eating and depression.

Initial action by owner:

1. Remove all feed- horses wont generally eat but if the pain is intermittent they may try, this may make matters worse. 24 hours off feed wont hurt. Do not feed until the vet advises to start.

2. Walk the horse- do not confine to a stable- I always try to move the horse to a different paddock or large yard, the strange environment and being away from its mates will keep the horse alert and hopefully walk by its self. Otherwise lead the horse and try to prevent it from rolling. Rolling will not twist the bowel (horses roll all the time) but if the bowel is already twisted or obstructed, rolling could worsen the condition.

3. Heart rate and temperature- everyone should be able to do these procedures and you don’t need expensive equipment. Practice listening to your horse’s heart with a stethoscope and taking its rectal temperature. Normal heart rate: 30-40 beats per minute at rest. Report any rapid increases to your vet. Normal temperature: 38-38.5 C, take into account ambient outside temperature and exercise. Foals may have a slightly higher temperature.

4. Strict observation- continue to try and assess the degree of pain and if it is getting worse. Note any passage of faeces and watch water consumption. Horses will often ‘hang’ over their water and ‘play’ with it but not actually drink.

When to call the vet:

In my experience, horses may often undergo bouts of mild abdominal pain (a belly ache), which may easily go un-noticed by the owner. When pain is noticed the initial action steps (above) may get your horse through these mild attacks but you must not leave the horse if you have any doubts about its condition.

So if you have noticed colic, have taken the initial steps to help but are still worried- call the vet! Your horse will be better off being treated for a mild colic rather than waiting and letting the condition deteriorate. You may be given advice over the phone and asked to keep reporting on the horses condition or the vet may decide on immediate treatment.

Colic that does not respond to initial medical therapy may be progressing towards a condition of surgical colic. In the event of this occurring, economics and the insurance status of the horse (if any) need to be considered.

Telephone information for the vet:

The time when the condition was first noticed and a description of clinical signs.

Action taken by owner/carer and any response.

Report heart rate, temperature faecal passage and drinking

Past history; parasite control. Vaccination status (strangles and tetanus). Access to sand, diet, changes in feed. When the horse was last transported or exercised. Date served if in foal.

Avoid giving the horse any ‘home remedies’ and remember if you need veterinary advice - call your vet!

Causes of obstructive colic:

Impaction of intestines- sand: the most common cause of colic in W.A.

Distension of intestines- sudden change in feed, deworming, stress of transport.

Dilatation of stomach- excess feed consumption; especially grain- secondary to intestinal obstruction.

Rupture of stomach- if dilated stomach is not decompressed, can occur suddenly.

Ulceration of stomach- can be caused by stress and drugs such as ‘bute’. It is more common in foals.

Parasites- migrating larvae of strongyles damage and obstruct the blood supply to intestines affecting motility of the intestines.

Rotations/ twists/displacements/hernias- these conditions affect the blood supply to the small or large intestines, causing breakdown in the tissues. These are severe conditions that don’t respond to initial medical therapy and therefore progress to surgical conditions.


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