Colic is NOT a disease, but rather a collection of signs that should alert the vigilant owner to the fact that the horse is experiencing abdominal pain. The term "colic" is generally used to describe pain associated with the digestive tract and can range from mild discomfort to extremely severe. Colic should NEVER be ignored because many of the conditions that can cause colic are potentially life-threatening.
WHAT ARE THE SIGNS? Often identifying the signs of colic can be a major problem for the horse owner, as the signs can vary greatly between individuals and also depend upon the severity of the problem. There are many signs of colic - some of the most common include:
- Pawing at the ground
- Turning head towards the flank
- Kicking or biting at the abdomen
- Stretching out to urinate without doing so
- Continuously swishing the tail more than usual
- Walking around in circles
- Repeatedly getting up & lying down or attempting to do so
- Rolling on the ground
- Failing to shake when they get up from lying down
- Baring of the teeth
- Lack of appetite
- Increased or decreased gut sounds
- Change in the nature of the droppings
- Increased passing of wind
- Bloating of the abdomen
- Increased heart & respiration rates
WHAT TO DO? TAKE IMMEDIATE ACTION Time can be critical in minimizing the impact of the colic and allowing it to be successfully treated either medically, or in more severe cases, by surgical intervention.
OBSERVE THE SIGNS & NOTIFY YOUR VETERINARIAN IMMEDIATELY
- Behavioural (as above – pawing, kicking, rolling, depression)
- Digestive (droppings, passing wind) or lack of them .
- Vital signs (temperature, heart & respiratory rates).
- Try to remember if there have been any changes if routine.
- Medical history (deworming, any past history of abdominal pain)
- Breeding history (Is it a pregnant mare?).
- Be aware of the insurance status and/or value of the horse.
- Remove feed until your veterinarian has made a diagnosis.
- If horse is rolling, put it on a lead and walk the horse around to help ease discomfort while waiting for your veterinarian. DO NOT WALK THE HORSE UNTIL IT BECOMES EXHAUSTED. Do not endanger either yourself or others if the horse is behaving violently but wait for your veterinarian to arrive.
- Keep the horse as calm & comfortable as possible.
- Administer any medication the vet has advised but DO NOT administer drugs without advice as they may camouflage the problem and interfere with accurate diagnosis.
- Check the condition of your other horses as sometimes a change of feed can instigate colic.
DIAGNOSIS / TREATMENT A veterinarian will assess the signs, identify the cause and establish the severity of the colic. Your records of the signs (see above) will greatly assist this process. The veterinarian may pass a stomach tube to determine the presence of gas and also do a rectal palpation for any evidence of a blockage. Blood tests may also be taken to asses the degree of shock.
Treatment will vary according to the nature of the colic, and your veterinarian will decide the appropriate course of action, however colic management will generally include pain relief and medications to aid in re-establishment of normal digestive function.
REDUCING THE RISK. Horses may seem to be pre-disposed to colic because of the nature of their digestive tract, however good management can play a key role in prevention.
Establish a set routine for feeding and exercise - avoid sudden changes.
- Feed a high quality diet composed mainly of roughage as the horse is a grazing animal that needs to eat a volume of bulk food.
- Feed according to the amount of work and/or the horse’s condition eg. A horse in hard work or a pregnant or lactating mare will need increased energy content.
- Make dietary changes gradually.
- Divide any concentrate food evenly through the daily feeds.
- Provide fresh, clean water at all times (except immediately after strenuous exercise when the horse is excessively hot when only small amounts should be offered).
- Check hay, bedding, pastures and the environment for any toxic substances (eg mould).
- Avoid feeding on the ground in sandy soils.
- Set up a regular parasite control program.
- Change the intensity and duration of any exercise gradually.
- Reduce stress where possible as horses experiencing a dramatic change in environment or workload (eg. traveling long distances, at shows) are at high risk of digestive dysfunction.
- Maintain accurate management records of feed and exercise regimes.
Fit & Healthy & Rearing to Go.....
IN SUMMARY - Virtually any horse is susceptible to colic, but with care and management, the conscientious horse owner should be able to reduce risk and have a long and happy relationship with their horse.