Just hearing the word Colic can make a horse owner (or lover!) shudder! Here is a well-researched report on the subject from HorseGal.
What is Colic?
The definition of colic is abdominal pain, and although many people think colic is a single disease, it is more a clinical sign rather than a diagnosis. The word colic is really an umbrella term for gastro intestinal problems, which cause pain. Colic can be mild or severe and take on a number of forms. It is by most reports the number one cause of premature death in horses.
What are some of the underlying conditions for colic?
It can be gas (mild or excessive), impaction and obstructions, bowel twists, strangulation tumors, malfunctioning of the bladder or kidneys, or pain after foaling. Nervous, cardiopulmonary, or musculo-skeletal issues elsewhere in the body can all be considered a form of colic. It is estimated that 10-11% of the horse population undergoes a bout of colic every year.
What causes Colic?
Many times the original cause of colic is unknown but the most common causes include …
Irregularities in feeding
a sudden change of diet
overeating grain, such as a horse breaking into a feed bin
gastric upsets or indigestion
too much concentrated feed
unsoaked sugar beet
eating a substance that expands when damp
lack of water
stress or a stress-filled environment
too much food or water before or after exercise
worms or the lack of a balanced worming program
gas buildup after eating cut or mown grass, or rich spring grass
ingesting fungus or foreign object
In addition, some horse owners say that nervous horses that experience a change in management or senior horses in response to rapid barometric pressure changes may develop colic.
Can weather changes and/or seasonal changes cause colic?
To address the question of whether or not seasonal changes or changes in temperature can cause colic, I went to another person that I greatly admire (in addition to my friend and mentor, Connie!) and that was Kerry, my riding instructor (see Horseback Rider in Lesson Barn from March 2007 to read more about this remarkable woman and her barn).
When I asked the question, Kerry answered with a resounding yes. She has seen it in her horses with both seasonal changes and temperature changes. She said she believes it’s caused by the change in barometric pressure in the atmosphere. When I looked into this a bit more, I found that research shows that barometric pressure changes can indeed affect some horses. Nobody is quite sure exactly how or why the pressure affects some horses.
An abrupt change in temperature can also cause colic, such as when a storm is approaching and the pressure drops. As far as cold or colder weather affecting horses, some are more prone to colic then because they do not drink as much, which leads to dehydration and that affects their bellies. Also in the colder weather, they tend to stand around more, there is generally less grazing, and they are eating more hay than grass (grass having higher water content than hay).
What are the types of colic?
Impaction, blockage or stoppage
This type of colic is caused by food blocking the alimentary canal (aka Digestive or Gastrointestinal Tract). It can sometimes occur following a worming dose as the expelled worm bodies block the gut (most likely to happen if the horse is carrying a large worm load due to not being wormed regularly).
Enterolith-induced colic is a fairly common blockage colic. An enterolith is a mineral concretion or calculus formed anywhere in the gastrointestinal system. A horse ingests a foreign object which becomes lodged in its intestine, where it gradually builds up a coating of mineral deposits. Ultimately, unless it is passed in manure or otherwise removed, the result can be an intestinal blockage causing colic symptoms.
Flatulent colic is caused by gas being created faster than it can be absorbed or passed out. It is natural for gas to be created during digestion, but if it is trapped, it can distend the gut wall and cause abdominal pain.
Spasmodic colic is caused by an irritated gut wall becoming overactive and causing spasms. The vet can use drugs to relax the horse and reduce spasms.
A thrombosis caused by worms, such as red worms (Redworms in horses - symptoms and control). Without its blood supply the section of gut involved dies unless an alternative route develops in time.
Twisted Gut / Intestinal Catastrophe
Probably the most serious form of equine colic - a twisted gut - causes intense abdominal pain. The intestines twist or become twisted around the tissue that attaches them to the walls of the abdominal cavity. This will cause violent colic symptoms. The blood flow in the intestine becomes obstructed.
A serious form of equine colic due to inflammation of the small or large intestines.
Suffered by horses that have been eating sand or grazing on sandy soils. Even the smallest grains of sand can cause serious problems for a horse’s digestive tract.
What do I do if my horse exhibits signs of colic?
First off, remain calm and don’t panic!
Call your vet if you notice symptoms such as restlessness, sweating, groaning, looking at the belly, pawing or stamping or lying down repeatedly and attempting to roll. A general rule is if the colic does not resolve itself within one half hour, you should call your veterinarian. When the vet arrives, he may use drugs to relieve pain, relax the horse, and ease spasms. He may also administer a saline solution.
What do until the vet arrives:
DO be prepared to answer your vet’s questions.
DO resist the temptation to medicate on your own!
Many medications, such as bute (phenylbutazone) or Banamine can alter the signs that your vet needs to accurately assess your horses underlying problem.
Oral meds are poorly absorbed from the intestines of a horse with a compromised gut, as is often the case with colic. Even under normal circumstances, oral meds require several hours to be absorbed and start working. NSAIDS (bute, banamine) may significantly mask symptoms, thereby delaying appropriate treatment.
DO NOT walk him around for hours.
Over the years, horse owners thought that a horse with colic should be walked around until the pain subsided, even if it meant walking him around for hours on end. This will only tire him, cause him pain and discomfort and make recovery harder, especially if he eventually requires surgery. If he will lie quietly, then you can leave him be while waiting for your vet. However, if he is in such pain that he is trying to thrash around or roll violently, it may be better to move him around at a walk or even a trot to keep him from hurting himself.
DO NOT allow him to eat.
My research for this blog indicated different schools of thought on this. In general, it is ok to offer a small amount of a “sloppy mash” in a horse with mild colic, to try to stimulate his appetite since the presence of feed and the act of eating can stimulate the intestinal tract and start things moving.
Offer small amounts of water.
Whether or not to give him water is debatable, as some causes of colic may be aggravated by continued drinking. Best course of action would be to give him small amounts of water, like three swallows every five minutes or so. This will help many types of colic while minimizing the risk of causing harm.
The following list of management strategies should help the horse owner to review his or her current management and determine if they are doing their utmost to reducing colic risks.
1. Implement an effective internal parasite reduction program such as deworming.
2. Match the horse’s natural diet as closely as possible. [In other word, feed plenty of fiber-- grass or hay-- and limit the grain.]
3. Maintain a well balanced diet.
4. Schedule feedings to simulate eating patterns in nature.
5. Limit changes in feed and make any changes in feed gradual.
6. Feed only high quality hay and concentrated feeds.
7. Provide constant access to clean, fresh water and regulate water temperature in extreme cold.
8. Reduce stress for the horse by eliminating changes in housing and activity levels.
9. Maintain good dental health through regular examinations and dentistry by your veterinarian.
10. Manage the horse’s environment by providing clean, safe areas with adequate protection from the elements.
11. Pay close attention to your horse, so that disease and or illness can be detected and attended to in a timely fashion!
12. [PER CONNIE: The absolute best way of preventing colic is ample turnout time, 24/7 turnout if possible! Horses are designed to move around constantly, and not to stand around idle. If allowed the space, they WILL move around.]
THANKS SO MUCH to our friend HorseGal for this well-researched and informative post! HG says she learned a lot, and she is ALL about learning everything she can about horses!