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Colic is a general term referring to abdominal pain.

Why colic is one of the most common emergencies in horses?

The anatomy of the horse intestines has its particularities. We can grossly divide the horse intestines in small intestine and large colon. To be simple and graphic, the small intestine can be compared to a very flexible loose long hose that connects the stomach to the large colon. In certain situations the small intestine can just “shut down” and stops moving, this is call ileus and the disease is call Duodenitis Proximal Jejunitis. Other causes of colic rising from the small intestine are obstructions which can be classified in non-strangulating and strangulating. The non-strangulating obstructions can be caused by tumors, inflammation and fibrosis, and also due to food that gets “stuck” and causes distention of the small intestine prior to the site of the obstruction, this causes moderate to severe colic pain. The strangulating obstructions are caused by twists of the intestine or when the intestine gets inside natural small places in the abdomen such as epipolic foramen or inguinal canal and causes severe pain.       

The large colon is big in diameter size and long. It changes in direction with sharp turns and also the diameter of the lumen varies through its length, these factors contributes the ingesta to get “stuck” in certain areas where the lumen changes in size acting like a bottle neck. Also the large colon has few attachments to the internal walls of the abdomen or other organs, which prompts it to twist or displace from the normal position. All of these conditions cause colic. However, in certain cases the motility just slows down or changes in diet or stress situations provokes gas build up in the colon causing pain as well.   



Colic symptoms range from a very subtle changes in behavior being off feed, depress or agitated and uncomfortable to violent and relentless thrashing and rolling. If you observe any of these signs call your veterinarian. In the mean time observe the horse to see if the colic subsides after a few minutes. Remove food and water and if the animal tries to eat bedding put a muzzle.  If the horse is experiencing a violent colic, close the stall door and watch it from outside, you may know your horse for many years and might be a very quiet and friendly animal but with such a degree of pain the horse can hurt you unintentionally. Try to remember any changes in feed, drugs or de-wormers administered, amount of manure produced, changes in routine, or anything else that might have triggered the colic episode.

Colic may start out mild and simple but in some cases may progress to a serious and life threatening problem if not addressed promptly.

Once the veterinarian exams your horse the goal is to search for the origin of the abdominal pain. This is achieved by taking vital signs, horse’s history and transrectal palpation of the abdomen, further assessment is performed by doing an abdominocentesis (belly tap) an example from the fluid that surrounds the intestines, passing a nasogastric tube, ultrasonography and blood work. The abdominal fluid should be observed and biochemically assessed. Clear-ambar is the normal color and any deviations from that color should be interpreted by the doctor in the context with the other clinical parameters. The horse cannot vomit like a dog or human, therefore nasogastric intubation is performed with the goal to decompress the stomach, assess amount, color and smell of gastric contents retrieved. It is also used to administer oral fluids, medication and mineral oil if it’s appropriate.  Ultrasonography is very sensitive to diagnose problems of the small intestine. In the screen is possible to see distended and thick small intestine which can guide the clinician to the origin of the colic. The sensivity of this diagnostic modality permits to detect a problem in the small intestine earlier than by rectal palpation and act accordingly. Blood work is a complement that has to be performed in a horse with colic because it gives the information about the hydration status, from the collected data the doctor will know if the animal needs endovenous fluids, amount and type of fluids as well.

After assessment of the horse, the doctor may have a definitive diagnosis of the origin of the abdominal pain or an idea of the causes that could be affecting the horse. Discussion with the owner will result in just observation of the horse, IV medication of analgesics to referral the animal to a Hospital for further medical treatment and or surgery.

Colic can be prevented by a number of measurements, most related with good husbandry. Regular and consistent feeding times, consistency of feed quality and quantity, exercise, ready access to clean fresh water, a salt block, routine and proper dental care, and regular anti-parasitic treatment are all part of successful management. Your particular circumstance may necessitate other means. Do not hesitate to consult us if you have any questions.

Reference:  Vet Clinics of North America