Signs of Colic In Horses

by | Feb 2, 2020

Colic is every horse owner´s nightmare and when it rears its ugly head it´s a stressful time for horse and owner. Colic is actually a catch-all term for abdominal discomfort and it has many causes that range in severity and causes. It´s important for all horse owners to be aware of the signs of colic, not least because early intervention can be lifesaving. Equally, by being aware of certain causes of colic, we can help to prevent the circumstances in which they might occur.

What Can Cause Colic In Horses?

Because colic can apply to any cause of abdominal pain there can be any number of culprits. Of course the gastrointestinal tract is most commonly implicated but some horses can suffer colic because of acute or chronic problems of other abdominal organs such as the liver, kidneys, uterus, spleen and bladder to name a few.  Some stallions can also show colic signs due to problems relating to their testicles.

Normally colic can be attributed to problems within the gastrointestinal tract but even here the individual causes can be very numerous. Here is a shortlist of common causes of gastrointestinal-related colic in horses and ponies:

  • Gas colic – can be precipitated by change in management, food or environment
  • Impaction
  • Spasm
  • Displacement of gastrointestinal organs
  • Gastric ulcers
  • Torsion
  • Enteroliths
  • Tumors – particularly lipomas

What Are The Signs Of Colic?

Recognizing the signs of colic is the first step to getting him back to his normal self. It´s important to be aware of the normal parameters in horses, and to know your own horse as an individual – what he´s like when he´s content and how he displays signs of discomfort. Important parameters to note are respiration (breathing) rate, heart rate, temperature and the color and wetness of the inside of his lips (known as mucous membranes), it´s useful to have a reference book on hand to check up on anything that doesn´t seem normal and why, and also to distract you while you wait for the vet!

Signs of colic can vary from horse to horse, but frequently involve one or more of the following:

  • Restlessness – horses are often pacing agitatedly, or can´t seem to get comfortable, sometimes pawing at the ground or attempting to roll. Contrary to more outdated opinions, it´s generally not harmful for the horse to roll as long as he can´t get cast or injure himself
  • Looking at the flanks – discomfort often draws the horse´s attention to where the pain is coming from, some horses will repeatedly look at their flanks, while others will nip or kick at them
  • Demeanor – although often restless, many horses are evidently not their normal selves and appear depressed, often distracted or grumpy with their ears back
  • Abdominal tensing – although not apparent in all cases, some horses with colic will appreciable tuck in their abdomens, seeming to bascule over the back, others will show spasms of the abdominal region
  • Distension of the abdomen
  • Sweating
  • Reduced fecal output – when colicking, horses often produce fewer and smaller, drier poos than normal. A reduction in fecal output can be a key early indicator of impending colic

These are all signs that horse owners tend to pick up quickly and which indicate their horse isn´t itself. Further examination is needed by a veterinarian to ascertain the cause and severity of the colic. Their focused examination will include an assessment of the horse at a distance, followed by its vital parameters (heart rate, temperature, etc.) and a few additional diagnostic tests if indicated.

Every horse owner should have in their first aid kit a thermometer and stethoscope to monitor their horse´s vital signs in case of emergencies, and to be able to tell the vet so that any deterioration can be quickly identified.

The horse´s temperature is normally around 99.6-101.5 degrees and should be taken using a digital thermometer as it´s quicker than a mercury thermometer, and particularly useful in an agitated horse. The thermometer should be coated with a sterile lubricating jelly prior to inserting it into the horse´s rectum. The heart rate of an adult horse normally lies within the range of 28–40 beats per minute and the respiratory rate between 10-14 breaths per minute. Significant deviations from these values can help the veterinarian sort between the most likely causes of colic, as well as the severity and the appropriate next steps.

The veterinarian will auscultate both sides of the abdomen in a methodic manner using a stethoscope. This helps us to gauge the movement of the intestines and any region where reduced motion or gas distension is present, or where the intestines might have become displaced from their normal positions. It´s also useful for the horse owner to learn to listen for their horse´s gut sounds with their stethoscope, but only if the horse is safe and tolerant.

In all but the most uncomplicated colic, a rectal examination would be performed by the attending veterinarian. The veterinarian can distinguish between normal and abnormal structures in the abdomen through gentle palpation via the rectum of the horse. Although it´s very useful as part of the complete examination of the horse, and in some cases can give a specific diagnosis, the rectal examination can´t always indicate what is wrong. The horse has a very extensive abdomen, so even per rectum we can only evaluate part of it. Another commonly performed diagnostic test in colicking horses is evaluating gastric reflux. This means passing a tube through the horse´s nose and into its stomach and evaluating the volume of fluid that returns. It´s important because the return of over 2 Liters of gastric fluid is a big concern because it can mean that the horse has an obstruction in its small intestine and this is an emergency that requires referral for further assessment, stabilization and generally surgical intervention.

What To Do It You Suspect Colic

Colic is always a stressful event. Being aware of the potential causes does heaps to help prevent it from occurring – due to stress, change in feed etc. – but unfortunately not all causes of colic can be prevented. If you suspect colic it´s best to give your vet a call and in the meantime examine your horse´s vital signs if it´s safe to do so. Many cases will resolve with little treatment but delaying in getting a surgical colic the help it needs can be devastating.

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