What Is Colic?
How to recognize the symptoms and what to do about them.
By Dr. Thomas R. Lenz in The American Quarter Horse Journal | October 19, 2011
Colic remains a major cause of sickness and death in horses.
Approximately 10 percent of all horses suffer at least one bout of colic during their lifetimes. And a little more than 6 percent of those die, nearly twice as many horses as are affected by other diseases or injuries. Here, we’ll focus on what to do while you’re waiting for the veterinarian to arrive.
What Is Colic?
The word “colic” simply refers to abdominal pain. It covers a multitude of abdominal and intestinal problems, ranging from simple excess gas in the intestines to severe torsion or twisting of the intestines. It can also include stomach ulcers, uterine pain in pregnant or post-foaling mares and pain associated with disease in organs of the abdomen.
It is critical for horse owners to recognize the early signs of colic, because the sooner the horse is seen and treated, the greater his chances of recovery. All colics begin with mild pain and subtle symptoms. If the horse is lucky, it will be a mild colic and resolve on its own or with moderate treatment from a veterinarian.
However, the first clinical signs might be an early stage of a life-threatening colic that will eventually require extensive treatment or surgery. Unfortunately, no one can tell at the beginning.
Signs of colic in the horse vary, but include not eating, yawning, restlessness, groaning, repeatedly curling the upper lip, looking at the flank, continuous or intermittent pawing, circling, backing into a corner or post, standing in a stretched position, lying down repeatedly, rolling and sweating excessively.
Remember that these signs are not specific for any particular type of colic and no colicky horse is likely to show all of them. Know how your horse acts normally to recognize anything unusual.
What Do You Do?
Remember that all colics are emergencies and a veterinarian should be contacted as soon as possible. Once you’ve determined that your horse is colicking, call a veterinarian immediately. Provide the veterinarian with as much information over the phone as possible. This should include the clinical signs (pawing, sweating, rolling, etc.), the horse’s rectal temperature (normal between 98 to 101.2 degrees Fahrenheit), the horse’s heart rate (normal is 30 to 40 beats per minute), and the horse’s gum color (normally pink, but might be blue if the horse is in shock or dark red if the horse is toxic).
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Now that you’ve made the call, and the veterinarian is on his way, what should you do while waiting?
Here are a few simple guidelines. First of all, do not allow the horse to eat. In severe colic, the horse will not want to eat, but in a mild colic or during periods of low pain, the horse might attempt to eat. Although interest in feed is a good sign, it could make the colic more severe or interfere with oral treatments. If nibbling a little green grass seems to help, that is OK, but do not allow access to hay or grain. If possible, move the horse to a grassy area with good footing and few obstacles. This will make it easier to handle the horse if he wants to lie down.
To Walk or Not to Walk?
The big question is whether or not to walk the horse. It is commonly believed that if a colicky horse rolls, he will twist an intestine. That can be true in horses with severe colic where intestines are filled with fluid and devitalized. However, in the vast majority of horses, rolling is not going to twist the intestine. Most twists and displacements occur while the horse is standing, and rolling is an attempt to get comfortable. The real problem with horses rolling, especially uncomfortably, is that they are very likely to injure themselves or their handlers, and they expend huge amounts of energy.
Here are my guidelines for when and when not to walk a colicky horse.
Remember that a horse lies down and attempts to roll to relieve pain and find a more comfortable position. If the horse lies down and stays down quietly, even in an unusual position, leave him alone. If he wants to get up and change positions periodically and then lie down again, leave him alone. If he constantly gets up and down and tries to roll frequently, walk him around.
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Long-term walking can actually tire a horse, so do it only when absolutely necessary to take the horse’s mind off his pain. There is some debate as to whether or not walking stimulates intestinal motility. Occasionally, a horse suffering from gas colic will benefit from trotting or a trail ride, which seem to move the gas along. But there is no evidence that walking either stimulates intestinal movement or corrects a twist. Unless specifically instructed to do so by your veterinarian on the phone, do not medicate the horse before the veterinarian arrives. Many common sedatives and painkillers decrease intestinal movement and might actually make the colic worse. Others affect heart rate or lower blood pressure and can put the horse at risk of shock.
Note any unusual character, color or composition of the horse’s manure and the frequency of defecation or urination. Also, note if the abdominal girth has changed during the colic episode, especially if it is enlarged. Note the frequency and intensity of the painful episodes and whether they are continuous or increasing in severity. All of this information will help the veterinarian determine the cause of the colic.
Colic is a true emergency, and getting a veterinarian on the scene as quickly as possible is the key to saving the horse.