What is Colic?
Horses that have colic experience pain within their abdominal area for a variety of reasons. Colic in horses is a condition that can be quite distressing to the animals. By veterinarians, colic is used as an actual symptom, or clinical sign, instead of a diagnosis. The term colic, or saying a horse has colic is similar to saying a horse has sinus pain, or leg pain. The only real difference is that colic is, in some cases, considered by the horse owner as a diagnosis, as it does present a variety of discomforting symptoms.
The term colic in general is an umbrella medical term for many types of pain in the gastrointestinal area. Colic can also cause other types of discomfort in different areas of the body. There are many types of conditions that are related to colic, and the use of antibiotics can be related to the cause of colic as well. This condition has many definite clinical signs and is easily diagnosed by a veterinarian and treated in most cases, and some types are more severe than others.
Severe colic caused by small intestine abnormalities or blockages can be life-threatening, and it is very important to see a veterinarian as soon as possible. In severe cases, surgical intervention is required.
Colic is mild to severe pain in the abdomen, typically marked by issues with the gastro-intestinal tract. There are many causes of colic, and colic is still being researched in horses and other animals, as well.
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Symptoms of Colic in Horses
Colic presents itself in a variety of symptoms. Your horse may have a few of these symptoms or several. Symptoms of colic in horses include:
- Loss of appetite
- Lack of movement sounds in the gut
- Legs tucked with laying on the ground
There is a variety of conditions in which colic has a relation to, as well as different types of colic. Some types of colic, such as displacement colic and impaction colic are directly related to abnormalities or blockages of the intestines and must be treated as soon as possible. Types of related conditions are:
- Displacement colic
- A distended stomach
- Impaction colic
- Spasmodic colic
- Gas colic
Causes of Colic in Horses
Colic has been shown to be dependent upon your horse’s microflora and anatomy of his gastrointestinal tract. Colic can be quite uncomfortable to your horse. Causes of colic in horses may include:
- A diet high in grain
- Feed that is moldy
- Not enough water in the body
- Ingesting sand within the food
- Changing your horse’s diet
- NSAID usage over time
- Dental issues
- Intestinal blockage
- An overstretched intestine wall (by gas or fluid)
- Twisting of the intestine
- Inflammation in the intestinal wall
- Obstruction in the lumen
Diagnosis of Colic in Horses
If your horse is exhibiting any symptoms of colic or any condition in which your horse is showing signs of colic, contact your veterinarian. Observe your horse’s symptoms, including if he is having bowel movements, and keep him away from food for the time being. Encourage your horse to rest as much as possible.
Once you take your horse to the veterinarian, he will ask questions about his symptoms. He will also ask questions about his feeding schedule, his food, how much he exercises, and any behavioral changes he may be experiencing. He will want to know if the episode is isolated or if it has been occurring for a time period. The veterinarian will perform a thorough examination to determine the specific section of your horse’s intestinal tract that is involved. The veterinarian will then listen for specific sounds within his gut, check his vital signs, perform an exam of the rectum, and perform nasogastric intubation (pass a tube in the horse, or a nasogastric tube). This tube is very helpful in relieving any gas within the horse, and is also quite useful for giving the horse any medications. It can also prevent gastric rupture and stomach distention.
The medical professional may auscultate the thorax and abdomen, and percuss the abdomen. Auscultation is the process of listening to the sounds of the stomach, and tapping lightly on the stomach area is known as percussion. The veterinarian will know specific sounds to listen for and will know what each sound means in terms of what is causing the colic.
The veterinarian, in addition to these tests, will also palpate other parts of his body, such as his heart area, chest area, and kidney area. Once again, he will be listening for specific sounds in order to come to a conclusion as to what is causing the colic symptoms.
He may also want to get a sample of peritoneal fluid to check for any intestinal damage. He may also perform an ultrasound on your companion to help uncover any underlying disorders, and to check for any blockages that may require surgery.
Your veterinarian will determine if your horse requires any medication, banamine is typically the drug of choice. Your medical professional will be very careful in giving him any medication due to the side effects and the possible cause of a clostridial abscess if given in the muscle. Any medication given will be given orally or through intravenous methods. If your veterinarian suspects that your horse may be blocked, or if he feels he may have a displacement, he will recommend transporting him to an equine hospital for possible surgery.
Treatment of Colic in Horses
Treatment for colic depends on many factors. The age of the horse, the reason for the colic, and the overall health of the horse and any underlying conditions are very important in determining the mode of treatment. Treatment also depends on the severity of the colic. Treatment methods may consist of:
Medication will be given in many cases of colic. Usually, an analgesic will help your horse just fine. Medications will only be given after a thorough examination, so the real underlying condition is not covered up. Analgesics work for spasms, intestinal pain, and inflammation. For more severe cases, sedatives and narcotic analgesics will be prescribed.
Laxatives and Lubricants
Laxatives and lubricants are helpful in managing your horse’s colic. Often, the horse gets sand in his stomach area which causes impaction in the large colon. Lubricants and stool-softening medications help the horse find relief in passing a successful bowel movement, and the gas that comes with the pain of colic. Laxatives and lubricants are given through a nasogastric tube. Mineral oil may also be used to coat the inner workings and layers of the intestines.
Strongylus vulgaris has been known to be responsible for colic in some cases. These larvae of the bloodworms affect the wall of the cranial mesenteric artery, which develops plaque within the tissues of the artery. The effects of the bloodworms on the arteries in turn lead to a reduced blood flow to the intestines. This does not allow the nutrients to be absorbed properly.
If the normal flow of food being digested is disrupted, surgery is an option. Surgery usually is necessary if there is a blockage within the intestinal area of the body, especially if the obstruction blocks any supply of blood. Surgery also is recommended if the horse does not respond to any other treatment method.
Recovery of Colic in Horses
Prognosis of horses with colic is guarded. The survival rate is approximately fifty to sixty percent, depending on if he had to undergo surgery. Prognosis is good for horses who have mild cases of colic with a cause that is undefined. In terms of recovery, it will depend on the exact cause of your horse’s colic and how well he responds to treatment.
Once treatment is complete, your horse will be seen again by the veterinarian to be sure he is recovering. It will be important to closely monitor your horse and be sure any new symptoms are reported to your veterinarian. It will also be important to follow your veterinarian’s instructions on how to properly care for your horse once you take him home.
Any medications you are responsible for giving your horse must be given to him consistently as directed by your veterinarian. If your horse had surgery, it will be very important to watch over him to be sure he is healing. Your veterinarian will give you instructions on how to care for his incisions, and will want to see your horse several times after the surgery to check for any possible complications.
Your veterinarian will also give you specific dietary changes that you will need to put into action. Be sure any dietary changes are done gradually; your veterinarian will give you advice on how this is done. Once your horse does recover, there are preventative measures you can take so he does not develop colic again. These may include keeping your horse on a regular feeding schedule, avoiding any sudden changes to his diet, always having fresh water available, keeping all food and hay clean and free of mold, checking his teeth often, and giving him plenty of exercise. Also, avoid sand ingestion by keeping his feed off of the ground. These preventative measures will not only keep your horse happy, but healthy as well.