How To Treat Colic

A common worry for horse owners, colic is sadly unpreventable with around 1 in every 10 horses suffering from it every year. It’s for this reason that you need to know what signs to look out for and how to treat it.

If your horse has recently developed colic you may be able to improve the symptoms and aid his recovery without the need to a vet but you should always be ready to seek medical advice.

What is colic?

Colic is actually a general term for any gastrointestinal condition and can range in severity from mild to life-threatening. There are a number of different reasons for a horse suffering from colic but the main causes are: 

  • Horses digests their food in part by fermentation (the chemical breakdown of food by use of bacteria, yeast and microorganisms). This produces gas which sometimes builds ups and can cause problems in the gut. 
  • Horse’s don’t have a gallbladder which means that they’re not able to remove indigestible food for toxins by vomiting. This means that the food or toxins build up and can cause a blockage.
  • A blockage in the digestive tract can, if not treated, lead to a bout of colic.
  • Dry, dusty food and lack of water can lead to dehydration which is a known cause of colic.

What are the symptoms of colic?

Every case of colic is different and your horse may not exhibit all of the symptoms but the main ones to look out for are:

  • Agitation or distress as well as pawing at the ground.
  • Sweating without any obvious reason.
  • A faster breathing rate.
  • Trying to repeatedly kick or bite the stomach or flank.
  • Stretching as if needing to urinate. 
  • Rolling or trying to roll much more than normal.
  • An increased pulse, typically over 50bpm, with no obvious reason for it.
  • Unexplained loss of appetite.
  • Passing little or no manure, if they do pass manure it’s either dry or covered in mucus.

Types of colic

  • Gas – This is caused by a build up gas in the horse’s intestines, often accompanied by a lot of flatulence.
  • Spasmodic – Caused by intestinal cramps and or spasms.
  • Impaction – This occurs when there’s a build up of partially digested food in the large intestine which causes a blockage. A common symptom of impaction colic is the horse doesn’t pass manure.
  • Sand – Common with horses that live in sandy areas or fed from a sandy ground. The small dust particles can build up in the large intestine and cause a blockage.
  • Twisted gut – Luckily twisted gut isn’t that common but it’s extremely serious nonetheless and can often be life threatening. Its caused when the intestine either gets twisted or inverts into itself.
  • Displacement – Very rare this is where the intestine moves about in the abdomen and is unable to move back on it’s own. This is very serious because it stretches the blood supply.
  • Gastric rupture – This happens when an impaction moves to the horse’s stomach.
  • Intussusception – Usually caused by tapeworms for other parasites. The intestine will fold into itself, resulting in the blood supply being cut off.
  • Strangulation – Thankfully very rare, strangulation colic is one of these most fatal forms of colic. It occurs when a twist in the colon or small intestine cuts off the blood supply to the large intestine.

Is colic serious?

Colic can be extremely serious (after old age it’s the number one killer of domestic horses) so it’s important to treat it as a matter of urgency. A recent study found that 10% of all domestic horse will suffer from a bout for colic each year while 0.7% of those horses will sadly die from colic. On the positive side though most horses will make a full recovery from colic without any long term problems.

How do I treat colic?

Walking can help relieve some of the symptoms of colic and can even cure mild bouts of colic

Colic should always be treated as an emergency and never left to get better on its own. If the colic is mild and recently developed then walking your horse about can offer some pain relief from cramps and spasms. It also has the added benefit of preventing your horse from rolling.

If your horse wants to roll though and walking doesn’t deter this then although it can be tempting to put him in a stall don’t. Rolling in a small space can result in your horse becoming cast (this is when a horse rolls close to a wall and can’t get up or roll back and is therefore stuck or ‘cast’). If you can’t prevent your horse from rolling then if possible put him in an open area such as a paddock or grass arena, not a sand arena as the dust will only exasperate the problem. 

If these don’t help within a couple of hours it’s of the upmost importance that you call the vet, colic is very treatable especially if it’s dealt with quickly but if it’s not treated it can be extremely serious or even fatal.

When should I call the vet?

If your horse has had colic for more than a few hours (or if you aren’t sure how long he’s had colic for) then you should call the vet immediately. You should also call the vet straightaway if your horse is trashing uncontrollably. It can be tempting to rush to his aid but it’s safer for both of you if you keep out of the way and call the vet.

How can I prevent colic?

Prevention is always better than cure and while it’s not possible to completely eliminate the risk of colic there are a few steps that you can take to reduce the risk. 

  • Water – make sure that your horse has access to fresh water all of the time. Research has shown that horses that are without water for just two hours are 10 times more likely to suffer from colic.
  • Feed – rather than one big feed it’s far better to feed horses smaller meals more frequently. Horses are natural grazers and have a digestive system that’s used to a smaller amount of food more often. If you can avoid your horse grazing on dusty or sandy ground this will help too.
  • High fibre – at least 60% of a horse’s diet should be fibre such as hay.
  • Clean food – this might sound silly to say but make sure your horse’s feed is of good quality and isn’t mouldy or dusty. It’s also important to make sure there’s no foreign objects such as twine or plastic in it.
  • Routine – try to keep a regular routine with your horse and if you need to make any changes do it gradually. If nothing else sudden changes can stress your horse and this can be a factor in colic.
  • Exercise – have a regular exercise routine that won’t overexert your horse and make sure you include a proper cooling off period too.
  • Teeth – poorly chewed food will increase the risk of colic so it’s important to have your horse’s teeth checked regularly.
  • Worming – parasites can lead to colic so it’s crucial to keep a regular worming programme.
  • Bedding – If you stable your horse at night then try to use a bedding that isn’t too dusty if you can. Bedding such as wood shavings or rubber matting. 

Conclusion

Colic is very common in horses but at the same time in most cases can be treated easily, that said it does need to be dealt with straightaway.

If your horse has mild colic then you may be able to treat it at home without any medical assistance, but if it persists for more than a very hours don’t delay in calling the vet.

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