What to Do When Your Horse Has Colic

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Equine colic is typically defined as any unusual abdominal pain, although horse owners will refer to it as an issue with the gastrointestinal tract. There are many causes of colic, but they are all generally related to the anatomy and the micro-flora of your horse’s gastrointestinal tract.

Common Causes of Colic in Horses

The most common causes of colic in a horse include:

  • Ingestion of sand
  • Stress
  • Dental problems
  • Tainted or moldy food
  • An abrupt change in diet
  • High grain based diets
  • A lack of water consumption
  • Long term use of NSAIDS (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug)
  • A parasitic infection

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Signs and Symptoms of Horse Colic

Typical symptoms of a horse affected by colic include:

  • Rolling
  • Pawing
  • Distress
  • Uneasiness
  • Absence of gut noises
  • Loss of interest in food and water
  • Sitting or stretching postures
  • Bloating
  • Sweating

Types of Colic in Horses

There are a few different types of equine colic that you should be aware of, including stomach distention, displacement colic, impaction colic, gas colic, spasmodic colic, and enteritis.

  • Stomach Distention – this type of colic involves the rupturing of the stomach.
  • Displacement colic – A horse’s small intestine is free floating in the gut. This mobility can predispose the small intestine to become suddenly twisted.
  • Impaction colic – This happens when a firm mass of foreign material or feed blocks the intestine.
  • Gas colic – Abdominal pain caused by the gut distending due to gas buildup
  • Spasmodic colic – This is defined as painful contractions of the smooth muscle in the intestines
  • Enteritis – Intestinal inflammation due to tainted food, bacteria, or grain overload

Treatments of Equine Colic

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In order to give your horse the proper treatment, it is critical to determine the cause of the colic. The severity of the colic symptoms is not necessarily indicative to the severity of the colic, and therefore, it is sometimes tough to determine the exact cause and the correct treatment procedures. Many cases of equine colic can be successfully remedied by medication, while others involving severe twists or impactions may need immediate surgery.

If you think your horse is experiencing signs of colic, it is imperative to contact your vet immediately. While waiting for their arrival, you should:

  • Monitor your horse’s vital signs, including pulse and heart rate, respiratory rate, rectal temperature, color of the gums, capillary refill time, moistness of the gums, digestive sounds, and passing of any feces. Remove access to all of your horse’s feed.
  • Let the animal rest as much as possible. You do not have to walk the horse unless he is rolling.
  • Never administer any medication without the direction of the attending vet.

Upon arrival, your vet will listen for gut noises in your horse, further monitor vital signs, pass a nasogastric tube, and perform a rectal exam. Many types of colic can be treated right at the barn with the assistance of the proper medication and a stomach tube to alleviate gas and administer the meds. If your vet suspects an impaction or displacement that cannot be treated right on site, they may refer you to an equine surgical hospital.

Preventing Colic in Horses

There are many steps that you can take to prevent your horse from suffering from colic again once you know the cause. Some preventive measures that you can take include:

  • Never making a sudden change to your horse’s diet
  • Checking his teeth frequently to avoid gum and tooth problems
  • Providing adequate exercise
  • Clean and fresh water should always be readily available to your horse
  • Feeding him on a regular schedule, even on the weekends
  • Keeping his feed boxes and hay racks clean and free of dust and mold
  • Keeping feed off of the ground
  • Practicing an efficient parasite control program

While tending to a horse experiencing colic symptoms can be scary, it is imperative that you remain calm in order to provide your animal with the proper care and treatment until your vet arrives.

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