"Colic" is a catch-all term for belly pain from just about any cause. Here are some common and less common variations:
- Gas colic
Discomfort brought on by excess gas in any part of the intestines. This is one of the most common forms of colic and the outlook for recovery with medical management is generally good.
- Anterior enteritis
Inflammation in the section of the small intestine closest to the stomach. The cause isn't always clear. The small intestine stops working and becomes distended with fluid that backs up into the stomach. This is usually treated medically.
Typically develop when an accumulation of undigested feed blocks the flow through the intestinal tract. Most impactions can be treated medically, but severe ones may require surgery.
- Ileal Impactions
These occur in the last section of the small intestine, near the cecum. Two factors seem to be associated with blockage here – infestation with tapeworms and ingestion of coastal Bermuda grass hay, which is widely fed in the Southeast.
- Sand colic
Develops when a horse takes in particles of sand or grit during grazing or while eating feed. The sand settles in the intestines, and over time it can irritate the intestinal linking or it may build up to create a blockage (sand impaction).
Intestinal stones that form when minerals build up around something indigestible that the horse consumes. A single stone or multiple stones can form and may block the intestine. These are treated surgically.
- Large colon displacement
Occurs when the large colon moves out of place. This type of event is fairly common because the majority of a horse's large colon can move freely in the abdomen.
- Large colon volvulus
Occurs when the large colon twists on itself. This event is life threatening because the twist causes strangulation (cutting off the blood supply to) the affected section, and it requires immediate surgery.
- Strangulated small intestines
This condition can develop in several ways. Older horses can develop fatty masses that can wrap around the small intestine and cut off the blood supply. Or a section of the small intestine may get trapped in a space between different organs in the abdomen (such as the liver and pancreas). Or a section of intestine can telescope into itself, causing an intussusception. Regardless of the specific cause of the strangulation, the result in all of these cases is a cutting off of the blood supply to the intestine, which requires surgical correction.
The veterinarian will ask about your horse's history - how long the colic signs have been going on, when the last manure passed, when and what type of food was last eaten, and if there have been colic episodes in the past. An examination will be performed to determine the severity and cause of the colic. Besides vital signs and gut sounds, the examination will include:
- Mucous membranes. Gums should be moist and healthy pink, not dry, dark or bright red or purple. A toxic line is a red line that appears above the teeth when toxic compounds build up in the blood. Prominent blood vessels in the gums or the sclera (whites of the eyes) are another sign.
- Capillary refill time. Perform by pressing a finger on your horse's gum to briefly block blood flow and then watching to see how long it takes for color (blood flow) to return. Anything over two seconds suggests that your horse is dehydrated. Pinching a fold of skin on his neck to see how quickly it snaps back is another test for dehydration.
- Rectal examination. A palpation of the abdomen via rectal exam may help the veterinarian figure out what's happening in your horse's abdomen. Common abnormalities include a displacement or an impaction in the large colon or areas that are distended with gas or fluid, for example.
- Nasogastric intubation.The vet may pass a tube through your horse's nose and down the esophagus to the stomach to draw off the stomach contents. A large amount of gastric reflux (fluid and undigested food) suggests that whatever is causing the colic is preventing the stomach contents from passing through the digestive tract.
- Ultrasound. Some practitioners use portable ultrasound units as part of the exam to look for abnormalities in the gastrointestinal tract.
If your horse's pain isn't severe, there is no dehydration and the exam doesn't turn up anything concerning, then the episode will likely be treated at home. Your veterinarian will give you instructions for your horse's care and might administer medications, either intravenously or via the nasogastric tube. It is likely that your horse will need to be watched closely until the colic signs subside.
Afterward, keep an eye on your horse for a day or so, making sure there are no more signs of discomfort, the horse's appetite returns, and normal manure is passed. Controlled hand walks and grazing can be included. Gradually return your horse to a regular diet and routine work. Always follow the direction of your veterinarian.
If your horse is dehydrated, needs more intensive management or has severe signs that indicate surgery might be necessary, we recommend that you go to a referral clinic such as New Bolton Center where a clinical team can provide a higher level of care than your horse can receive at home.
The most telling sign is persistent pain, especially pain that persists after a medication such as xylazine or detomidine has been administered. A persistent heart rate above 60 can be telling in a horse that shows few other signs. A horse with large volumes of reflux or signs of dehydration usually needs fluids, and that's best done in a clinic.
Even if the signs aren't so clear, you may decide to take your horse in if you can't provide the care that is needed or if you live in an area where it is difficult to get veterinary help quickly.
At the clinic your horse can be closely monitored around the clock and get fluids through a continuous IV drip. At New Bolton Center, we have dual-boarded specialists, a large nursing staff and a critical care facility with a camera in each stall for constant monitoring. While some types of colic require medical management instead of surgery, if your horse takes a turn for the worse, a qualified equine surgeon, internist or critical-care specialist is on site 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Please note that this information is general in nature and should not replace the advice of a veterinary professional. Colic is a serious medical condition and you should always contact your veterinarian or New Bolton Center as soon as you have any concerns and follow their advice.
- If you need to contact us, we are available 24 hours/day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.
- Call New Bolton Center at 610-444-5800.