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What is Recurrent Colic?

Colic is when your horse experiences pain in his abdomen. It may be challenging for your veterinarian to diagnose the condition in your horse that is causing him pain. Three or more episodes of transitory or ongoing colic over the course of months or a year is considered recurrent colic.

Recurrent colic occurs when your horse experiences ongoing pain in his abdomen or more than three episodes of abdominal pain over the course of a period of time.

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Symptoms of Recurrent Colic in Horses

Should your horse be experiencing colic, he will appear to be uncomfortable and in pain. The pain typically does not come on gradually. He may also exhibit strange behaviors and start to sweat more than he usually does. He may stomp on the ground, kick out or bite at his stomach area. He may also try to stretch out in an effort to alleviate some of the pain he is feeling.

  • Sweating
  • Reaching around to look or bite at stomach
  • Agitation
  • Stretching
  • Lying down
  • Pain

Types 

Colic, whether an individual incident or recurrent can be one of the following types:

  • Idiopathic - This is where no root cause is found
  • Enteritis - Colic is due to the inflammation of your horse’s intestine, which may be the result of infection, viruses or bacteria.
  • Gas - Too much fluid or gas accumulates in your horse’s digestive tract; the pressure and inflammation that results leads to discomfort. 
  • Intussusception - Usually the result of tapeworms or other parasites; very dangerous as the intestine slides with a part of itself, which may cut off the blood supply.
  • Impaction - An accumulation in the colon of your horse of sand, dirt, feed or another material that cannot be digested, making it impossible for your horse to eliminate waste.
  • Gastric rupture - A rare condition that may happen when an impaction reaches the stomach of your horse or gas build up, leading the horse’s stomach to dilate.
  • Strangulation - There is a twist in the colon or small intestine of a horse

Causes of Recurrent Colic in Horses

There are various causes of recurrent colic to include:

  • Parasites
  • Gastric ulcers
  • The accumulation of sand
  • Gas that comes and goes
  • Intestinal stones
  • Masses that may result in a partial obstruction
  • Colonic displacement
  • Ileal hypertrophy
  • Enteroliths
  • Inflammatory bowel disease
  • Behavioral habits such as cribbing may lead to colic

Diagnosis of Recurrent Colic in Horses

Should your horse be experiencing recurrent colic, your veterinarian will get historical information about him as well as conduct a physical examination. Your veterinarian will ask you about the symptoms you have noticed, when you first noticed them and any changes that have occurred. Your veterinarian will also examine your horse’s mouth; if he is in need of dental care he might be having trouble chewing, and can be susceptible to impactions. In addition to laboratory testing, your veterinarian may conduct a rectal palpation and should there be current signs of colic, may conduct nasogastric intubation.

A complete blood cell count will show your veterinarian any concerns to investigate further. It will also show liver and kidney values. Your veterinarian may evaluate a fecal sample for parasites and discuss with you how your horse’s pasture is maintained. Should the examination not give your veterinarian a good idea what is causing the recurrent colic, additional testing may be conducted. This can include:

  • Endoscopy of the stomach, esophagus and pylorus when a horse is fasting can help diagnose equine gastric ulcer syndrome (EGUS); endoscopy of the stomach can assist in a small intestinal biopsy of the duodenum, which is the first part of the small intestine
  • Ultrasound of his abdominal cavity in order to study the parts of the kidneys, liver, spleen and intestinal tract that can be seen, should there be a thickening in the intestinal walls it can point to right dorsal colitis or other infiltrative or inflammatory diseases; your veterinarian may notice any unusual abdominal masses
  • Abdominocentesis will get fluid samples that can be examined as infection or inflammation in the abdomen can lead to changes in the peritoneal fluid
  • X-rays of the abdomen may be recommended and can show if enteroliths exist
  • Rectal biopsy

The results of any tests conducted will be considered in conjunction with what your veterinarian saw during the examination. In some cases, your veterinarian may still not be able to diagnose the cause of the recurrent colic and laparoscopic and/or abdominal exploratory surgery may be recommended.

Treatment of Recurrent Colic in Horses

Treatment will depend on the cause of the recurrent colic and will be most helpful should it be targeted to a definitive diagnosis. The prognosis for your horse with recurrent colic will be dependent upon the reason for his condition. For example, stones, masses and obstructions will require surgical intervention. A condition like irritable bowel syndrome can be relieved with medication. Behavioral factors may need special attention. Should a specific cause not be determined, your veterinarian will likely recommend diet and management changes for your horse that will hopefully be helpful.

Recovery of Recurrent Colic in Horses

Recovery from recurrent colic will differ based on the underlying reason for the condition. It is important that you work closely with your veterinarian and attend follow-up appointments as recommended. Ensuring your horse has adequate pasture time, regular dental check ups, and gradual diet changes may reduce the risk of colic recurring.