Understanding equine colic

My horse is recovering from what we believe to be purpura hemorrhagica[i] – a serious allergic-type reaction to an infection from a flu virus. It all started with symptoms of fever and colic, but then progressed into symptoms of right dorsal colitis[ii] and enteritis, eventually leading us to the purpura diagnosis. It was a terrible experience, but thanks to the amazing care of my veterinarian and stable owner, my horse is now making a full recovery.

The experience gave me an appreciation for how delicate the horse’s gastrointestinal tract truly is. It also opened my eyes to how many different problems the word “colic” actually refers to, and how difficult it is to diagnose and treat this little-understood illness.

A colicking horse laying down in his stall.

Colic is very painful and it takes a lot out of a horse. Try to make them comfortable so they can be still and rest.

Colic is a blanket term for many abdominal problems

When I hear the word colic, the first two things that come to mind are gas or intestinal blockage. But colic simply means abdominal pain. According to Handbook of Equine Colic, 83% of colic cases are never diagnosed. Here’s the breakdown of common colics:

Idiopathic Colic (unknown causes)[iii]

  • Mild idiopathic colic – 83% of cases. The horse shows clinical signs of colic (see symptoms below), but we never figure out why.
  • Impaction – 7% of cases.
    • Cause: Material builds up in the horse’s colon, making it difficult for him to pass manure.
    • Prevention: Feed a high-forage/low-grain diet and plenty of water.
  • Gas/spasmodic colic – 4% of cases.
    • Cause: Excess gas or fluid builds up in the horse’s intestinal tract, making him very uncomfortable.
    • Prevention: Follow a regular de-worming program and prevent stress. 

Non-idiopathic Colic (known causes)

  • Gastric rupture – 2% of cases.
    • Cause: A blockage somewhere in the intestine cases gas to build up in the stomach. The stomach dilates and tears along its greater curvature.
    • Prevention: Feed a high-forage/low-grain diet and plenty of water.
  • Enteritis – 1% of cases.
    • Cause: A bacterial or viral infection causes the intestine to inflame.
    • Prevention: Protect your horse flu viruses and other diseases.
  • Strangulation/Torsion and intussusception – 3% of cases.
    • Cause: In strangulation/torsion, the gastrointestinal tract twists. In intussusception, the intestine slides back into itself. Both cases cut off the hindgut and food cannot pass through.
    • Prevention: Prevent strangulation/torsion by working with your veterinarian to ensure your horse’s hindgut stays healthy. Prevent intussusception through regular worming.

Clinical symptoms of colic

If you contact your vet as soon as your horse displays these symptoms, you can often prevent colic from escalating to life-threatening severity:[iv]

  • Lying own in an unusual position or at an unusual time
  • Getting up and down frequently
  • Looking or nipping at his flanks
  • Pawing and acting unsettled or anxious
  • Rolling or thrashing
  • Fever (temperature greater than 100.1 F or 37.8 C) and sweating
  • Dehydration
  • Flehmen response
  • Loss of appetite
  • Lack of normal gut sounds
  • Elevated pulse and respiration

Preventing colic

In my horse’s case, colic was triggered by a viral infection that led to inflammation of his intestinal lining. We will prevent it in the future through a careful vaccination regime. His treatment required a heavy course of antibiotics. It killed the virus, but a side effect of antibiotics is that they can also kill the good bacteria that live in the horse’s hindgut.[v] We have added a pro-biotic supplement to his diet to restore the balance of hindgut microflora.

Many of our valuable performance horses lead high-stress, high-intensity lives. They spend a lot of time stabled and eating high-energy grain. All of these factors place a horse at risk for colic. The best way to prevent colic is to cut back on processed grains, feed more high-quality forage, ensure your horse is drinking lots of water and give him plenty of opportunities to relax and horse around!

Tell me about your experiences with colic. How did you treat it, and what are you doing to prevent it?

Check out these sources for further reading:

[i] “Purpura Hemorrhagica in Horses,” Equine News, http://bit.ly/1VJrqpF

[ii] “Right Dorsal Colitis And Dietary Management,” Elizabeth G. Davis, DVM, DACVIM, http://bit.ly/1hRadvI

[iii] “Types of Equine Colic,” http://bit.ly/1NeqIhm

[iv] Equine Canada Stable Management Manual, 2009, pg. 86

[v] “Antibiotics How Do They Effect Digestion?” Equine Medical Service, http://bit.ly/1Lg1AlH

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s