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Understanding Colic
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Understanding Colic

 Colic is the number one killer of horses. But colic is not actually a disease. It is a symptom of disease and is defined in the dictionary as, "severe, often fluctuating pain in the abdomen usually caused by intestinal gas or obstruction of the intestines". So why is colic such a problem in horses, but not in other species or humans?

 The answer is partially explained in the way your horse's digestive system is set up. Horses are not able to vomit. This means any poison, toxin, or allergin they ingest cannot be easily expelled. The substance has to go through the whole digestive system, wreaking havoc the entire way.

 Horses have very small stomachs compared to their size. This works very well when their main food is grass or hay, since they eat small amounts all through the day. The problem comes when they ingest large amounts of feed (grain, pellets, etc), especially something that will expand with moisture (such as beet pulp). Since they cannot vomit, their small stomach may swell painfully and (in cases where they get in the feed room and gorge themselves) may actually burst.

 Another weakness of the horse's digestive system is that their intestines are not attached very efficiently in their body cavity. The intestines can sometimes kink like a garden hose and cut off the blood supply to a section, killing the section and releasing endotoxins in the horse's blood stream which can cause him to go into shock.

  Some colics are simple; merely the intestinal upset from constipation. These might resolve themselves, but they also may get worse. If your horse has a partial blockage due to constipation which is left untreated, it may worsen into a complete blockage.  This can kill the section of intestine containing the blockage. So, left untreated, a condition that started out simple and inexpensive may end up requiring surgery in order to save your horse.  Also, in the beginning stages, it is very difficult to tell a simple colic from a more serious one, and by the time the difference is obvious, it may be too late for your horse. TAKE EVERY CASE OF COLIC VERY SERIOUSLY. CALL YOUR VET IMMEDIATELY. 

  Obvious signs of colic are: 

1. Your horse looks back at his abdomen, repeatedly.

2. Your horse kicks at his abdomen repeatedly, but is not kicking to get flies off.

3. Your horse is pawing for no obvious reason.

4. Your horse lays down and gets right back up, and then may lay down again and repeat the process.

5. Your horse lays down to roll, gets back up, and then lays down again.

6. Your horse is sweating, not due to heat or exercise, and his respiration is up.

  There are other, more subtle signs of colic. Your horse will usually establish a daily pattern. If he breaks the pattern, this is usually an indication that something is wrong. I always suspect colic if:

  1. My horse is a good doer and he doesn't want to eat or doesn't finish eating.

2. My horse is listless and not grazing or eating hay at his regular time.

3. My horse lays down at an unusual time (especially feed time)

4. My horse stretches out like he needs to urinate but does not urinate.

  If you suspect colic, you should check your horse for gut sounds. To do this, you should stand at the horse's shoulder, as far away from his back feet as possible and put your ear to his abdomen in front of his flank. Check both sides. Colic is indicated by very few or no stomach sounds or, conversely, by very loud and frequent sounds. You should practice listening for gut sounds when your horse is healthy. This will familiarize you with the sounds of a normal gut and will also accustom your horse to this activity. If you wait until he's colicking, his pain and his unfamiliarity with this move will make him much more likely to kick. If your horse's stomach sounds are not normal, remove all your horse's food, and call your vet. The vet may also want you to take your horse's temperature and pulse rate. If the horse is in a stall, the vet may want to know if the horse has passed any manure. Talking to your vet about colic BEFORE it happens is probably a good idea. Find out exactly what information he or she would like to have when you call about a suspected colic.

  I will not go into treatments in this post, as I think this is a matter you need to discuss with your vet. Treatments range from pain medication and antispasmodics, through mineral oil administered with a nasal tube, all the way up to surgery. These things are also best discussed with your vet before you have a colic to deal with. The surgery, while much more successful than in the past, is very expensive. After care is extensive and complications can add to an already big bill.

 While not all colics can be prevented, there are plenty of things you can do to lessen the chance of your horse colicking. Feed plays a large part in colic. One of the most important things you can do is KEEP YOUR HORSE OUT OF THE FEED ROOM. I can't stress how important this is. While horses are very intelligent, most of them will gorge themselves on feed if left unattended. If you decide to change feeds, do this very gradually. Abrupt changes in diet is one of the things that predisposes horses to colic. Feeding several small meals is easier on your horse than feeding one large meal, as explained above. Feeding at regular times is also very helpful.

 Hay and/or grass is very important also. Free choice grass hay or pasture is the best option to avoid colic. A horse's digestive system is set up for almost continual eating. If he is without food for many hours, it can upset his intestinal flora which predisposes him for digestive trouble. Free choice hay or grass will eliminate this problem. If you cannot feed free choice, at least feed your hay first. If the horse is stalled, feed the hay, then water off, and lastly feed the concentrate (grain or pellets). This will help your horse's gut keep the proper pH balance and help him digest his feed more efficiently. One caution however: although it is not a problem in the south, where we have some grass all year long, in colder climates going from hay to lush pasture can be a problem. Also if your horse has been on grass and you put him up in a stall and feed grass hay, the changed moisture content can cause constipation. It's the sudden change from one type of food to another that's the problem.

 It should go without saying to always be sure your hay and feed are clean of dirt and rodent droppings, dust free, and mold-free.

 Doing routine worming and dental work will also help avoid colic. Just as chewing our food thoroughly helps with our digestion, good mastication helps the horse with his. If his teeth are uneven, especially if they have sharp points, he will have a hard time chewing effectively.

Worms are a big cause of colic for three reasons: 1. They can damage the walls of your horse's stomach or intestines. Depending on the amount of damage, this can: interfere with proper digestion; allow toxins into the blood stream; weaken the walls, making them more susceptable to rupture; and actually killing a section of gut. 2. Worms can also cause obstructions, and in high numbers can cause total blockage and kill your horse. Sometimes worming can cause a large number of worms to die and drop off in the digestive system all at one time, causing a blockage. If you get a new horse and suspect he has not been on a regular worming schedule, check with your vet before beginning your worming program.

 If your horse is in a stall, always note the amount of hay he eats, the amount of water he drinks, and the amount and consistency of his droppings. All these things should be basically the same everyday. Hay intake will go up slightly and water intake down in cold weather. The reverse is true in hot weather. But there is definitely an overall pattern. When your horse breaks his pattern, it usually means trouble.

 If your horse is turned out with other horses, you can still note the color and consistency of his droppings. Very dry or very loose droppings need to be addressed, as this is a warning sign of trouble if left untreated. 

 Be sure your pastured horse has access to clean water at all times. In the summer, if possible, position your water trough in the shade. In winter, make sure it doesn't freeze. 

 Do not feed your horse directly on the ground. Be especially careful to avoid sandy spots. Sand in your horse's digestive system is a major cause of colic. If you live in a dry, sandy area, or keep your horse in a dry lot; you can feed your horse psyllium. Again, this is something you need to discuss with your vet.

 Just like with people, exercise will keep our horses' systems regular. Exercise is probably even more important in horses, since movement is necessary to their circulation. If your horse is stalled, try to allow him some turn out time every day.

 While some colics are unavoidable, following these rules will dramatically lessen your horse's chances of getting colic.

 There's one more note I'd like to add about colic. You should always be cautious around a horse that is colicking. Colicking horses are much more likely to kick, and also more likely to bite or display other aggressive behavior.  You may have the nicest, sweetest, calmest horse in the world, but he is still much more likely to lash out due to the pain. Think about it. I know I'm grumpy when I'm in moderate pain and can get agitated when I'm in extreme pain. Why should I expect my horse to be any different? That's why it's a good idea to always use safe handling practices around any horse, no matter how smart or gentle. If you practice safe behavior when everything is calm, you will automatically do this when things are crazy. Don't depend on your horse to look out for you when he's in extreme pain. You should be looking out for him.

 If you're interested in learning about colic in more depth, the AAEP web site has several very good articles. Equisite.com >Healthcare also has an excellent article titled The Colic Fact Sheet.

 If anything I've written is unclear, or if you have further questions, don't hesitate to ask. I value any feedback.  



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I have been riding horses since I was two years old, and started earning money for riding while in my teens. After high school, I went to an accredited riding academy, and have done nothing but work with horses ever since I graduated (in 1973). I have moved all over the country with my jobs, worked with all kinds of different horses, and learned many different styles of riding. Currently, I am working as a pony girl (hence the pen name) on the racetrack in Louisiana. So, as you can imagine, I have had a very well rounded (still ongoing) education in horsemanship. I consider myself very lucky to have met so many knowledgeable people in so many different disciplines over the years. And now, I would like to share some of the things I've learned, with the readers of Of Horse.

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  1. Rene Wright
    Rene Wright
    Voted. Yep! My mistake was too much alfalfa and now Cookie has loose stools. Argh.. at least she's not constipated. Big plus there. I can control loose, can't control the other without a vet!
  2. Margaret B
    Thank you for the very informative post, PonyGirl!
    1. PonyGirl
      You're quite welcome. I'm glad you enjoyed it.
  3. autumnap
    Voted. Great article! Colic can also be symptomatic of other underlying problems too - grass sickness for example. Colic is something you can never ignore - always call the vet! x
    1. PonyGirl
      I'm glad you mentioned that autumnap. Sometimes problems with any of the other organs in the abdomen will also cause colic symptoms. Older horses can get benign tumors that press on the intestines and kill a section. (I had one die from this.) Sometimes horses develop fatty deposits that have stalks which can wrap around the intestines, killing a section. I had meant to mention all that in my original post, but it slipped through the cracks. So you never know what's really going on with colic symptoms but, whatever the cause, call the vet ASAP.

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