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Recognizing and preventing colic in horses

May 8, 2023
Horse in barn

It’s important to familiarize yourself with the symptoms of colic in horses, in addition to the different types and potential causes, so that you can do what you can to prevent this all-too-common condition from causing potentially serious harm.

Like humans, dogs, pigs and many other species, horses are monogastrics, meaning they have only one simple, single-chambered stomach. However, unlike most of their fellow monogastrics, horses are non-emetic, meaning they lack the ability to vomit.

With digestive systems designed as a one-way street, if horses overeat, have excess gas, or consume something harmful, they have no way to rid themselves of the discomfort other than through defecation or — in severe cases — surgical intervention.

As such, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the symptoms of colic in horses, in addition to the different types and potential causes, so that you can do what you can to prevent this all-too-common condition from causing potentially serious harm.

Signs of colic in horses

  • Frequently looking and/or nipping at their side(s)
  • Pawing at the ground with a front foot
  • Kicking at their belly with their hind legs
  • Repeatedly lying down and standing back up and/or rolling
  • Obvious abdominal distension/bloating
  • Little to no passage of manure, or passing manure that is unusually small or dry
  • Lack of interest in eating and/or drinking
  • Heart rate over 45–50 beats per minute (normal adult horses should have a heart rate of 28–44 beats per minute)
  • Long capillary refill time (normal is one to two seconds) and/or abnormal mucous membrane appearance (pink to pale pink is considered normal; gums should also be shiny and wet in a healthy, well-hydrated horse)
  • Elevated respiratory rate (a normal respiratory rate for an adult horse at rest is 10–24 breaths per minute)
  • Increased rectal temperature (a normal rectal temperature for an adult horse at rest is 99–101.5°F)
  • Profuse sweating, which is often induced by suffering from intense pain
  • Appearing depressed or unusually lethargic

Types of digestive colic in horses

  • Spasmodic colic: This is considered both the mildest and most common form of colic. Often linked to stress or sudden feed changes, spasmodic colic takes place when normal internal movement within the gut (known as peristalsis) is interrupted. Horses typically exhibit periods of severe pain, followed by periods where they appear more comfortable.
  • Gas colic: This type of colic is typically characterized by mild abdominal pain, stemming from excessive gas buildup. This can be caused by a dietary change, low forage consumption, lush spring grass intake, parasitic load or deworming. Horses suffering from gas colic will often exhibit excessive flatulence and may seek relief by holding a strained stretch, as if needing to urinate. Fortunately, this type of colic is typically resolved either on its own or with minimal veterinary intervention.
  • Impaction colic: Impaction refers to an obstruction of the GI tract. This can happen when forage, sand or some type of foreign material gets lodged in the colon and prevents the horse from properly passing manure. Dehydration can also play a significant role in contributing to impaction colic. Horses suffering from impaction typically begin to show their discomfort through decreased appetite, decreased manure production, and/or the passage of dry, hard manure, with signs of distress escalating as time goes on.
  • Displacement colic: Displacement occurs when the large colon moves to an unusual location; this can be caused by gas buildup inside of the gut that makes the intestines buoyant and thereby subject to movement. The pelvic flexure — an area where the colon narrows and makes a sharp turn — is a common site for displacement. This is a very serious form of colic, and surgery is usually required to save the horse’s life.
  • Strangulation colic: Also referred to as torsion or a twisted gut, this is likely the most dangerous form of equine colic, as it can block blood flow and result in tissue death. Horses suffering from strangulation colic are often in acute pain and are extremely restless. This is a lethal type of colic; surgery should be conducted as soon as possible.

Common causes of colic in horses

  • Stall confinement: It’s commonly known that horses kept for prolonged periods in stalls are more likely to colic than horses kept on pasture. The ability to freely walk around and continuously graze keeps the gut moving, which helps to keep colic at bay. Try to give your horses at least a few hours of turnout each day.
  • Meal feeding: Horses were designed to continuously consume large quantities of forage, but modern horses are commonly meal-fed, and all this waiting between meals can seriously slow down a horse’s digestion. The installation of a slow hay feeder can help to provide around-the-clock access to necessary forage.
  • High parasitic load: All horses have internal parasites/worms. A low parasitic load will generally have little to no effect on horse health, but a high one can lead to colic. It is important to conduct a fecal exam in both the spring and fall to determine fecal egg count prior to deworming. This can help you determine a proper deworming schedule and make appropriate dewormer choices.
  • Dehydration: Horses are very sensitive to the temperature of their drinking water. If it’s too cold or too hot, they won’t drink much. To ensure adequate consumption of at least 10–12 gallons/day for a mature 1,000-pound horse, 45–65°F is considered ideal. The proffered water should also be kept clean and fresh. Adding electrolytes or even plain salt to the horse’s diet can also help to encourage water intake.
  • Abrupt feeding changes: A sudden change in a horse’s diet is a leading cause of potentially debilitating ailments like colic and laminitis. Any change in a horse’s diet should be introduced gradually, over the course of 2–4 weeks.
  • Stress: Does stress ever make your stomach hurt? The same goes for horses, whose common stressors include transportation, stabling and/or environmental changes, intensive training, and increased stall confinement. Of course, these stressors can sometimes be hard to avoid, but you should do your best to keep stress to a minimum, especially for horses who have a history of suffering from colic.

What to do if your horse colics

If you think your horse may have colic, contact your veterinarian immediately. Typically, the earlier you can act, the better your horse’s chance of recovery.

While waiting for the vet to arrive, you should:

  • Monitor your horse’s vital signs, including heart rate and rectal temperature, every 15–20 minutes.
  • Remove any potential access to hay, grass, grain and/or water.
  • If your vet advises, you may administer Banamine (flunixin meglumine) paste, which is essential for any equine first aid kit.
  • Keep your horse moving at a comfortable walk, unless it is simply too painful for them.
  • Do your best to keep your horse calm and comfortable.

Dealing with issues like colic is certainly one of the downsides to horse ownership, but being prepared and well informed can make a world of difference. Adding a supplement like Lifeforce™ Digestion may also be an advisable form of prevention, as it is designed with yeast, probiotics and natural enzymes to support the ideal balance of beneficial gut bacteria.