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How To Spot Colic In Horses


Martin W. Adams, PhD, PAS – Equine Nutritionist for Southern States

A horse feeding in a field.In broad terms, the word "colic" simply means abdominal pain. Although colic can occur in any of your livestock species, because of horse digestive anatomy coupled with human horse feeding habits, horses are at the highest risk.

Because colic can have many causes and types, it can be difficult to identify early. However, spotting horse colic early can mean the difference between life and death for your horse, since a horse with colic will need surgery.

Below, our equine experts provide horse owners with a quick reference colic symptoms chart to help understand and identify horse colic symptoms early:

 

 

Simple Colic

Impaction Colic

Displacement/
Strangulation

Enteritis/
Peritonitis

Cause of Pain

Intestinal spasm, excess gas, slowdown or stoppage of digestive processes

Intestinal blockage, usually by dried-out feed or an intestinal stone (enterolith).

Twisted and distended intestines with some blockage of blood supply.

Infection with damage to intestines or abdominal cavity.

Horse’s Reaction

Depressed or excited, pawing, turns head toward flank, circles as if to lie down, stretches out as if to urinate.

Depressed, lies down for extended periods, stretches as if to urinate. May produce dry, scant feces or none at all.

Distressed, violently pawing, kicks at abdomen, rolls, sweats. Extremities are cold and clammy. May have a distended abdomen.

Mild to severe distress, changing to depression. Signs may be subtle, east to miss. Diarrhea occurs in some cases.

Vital Signs

Normal temperature, slight increase in heart rate (from normal rate of between 30 and 40 beats per minute), excessive or decreased intestinal sounds.

Normal temperature, slight to moderate increase in heart rate, decreased intestinal sounds.

Normal temperature, slight to severe increase in heart rate, decreased or no intestinal sounds.

Temperature above 102° F, slight to moderate increase in heart rate, decreased intestinal sounds.

Level of Discomfort

Mild to moderate pain, no shock.

Mild to moderate pain. Dehydration can occur over time as horse refuses to drink.

Constant severe pain with shock. Severe dehydration and shock due to endotoxins absorbed from the damaged intestine.

Mild pain, chance of shock.

Action

Call your veterinarian. If necessary, walk the horse to keep him from injuring himself until the veterinarian arrives.  Remove feed.

Call your veterinarian. If necessary, walk the horse to keep him from injuring himself until the veterinarian arrives.  Remove feed.

Call your veterinarian. This is an extreme emergency. Immediate diagnosis and treatment are necessary. Walk the horse to prevent him from injuring himself. Remove feed and water.

Call your veterinarian. This is an extreme emergency. Immediate diagnosis and treatment are necessary. Walk the horse to prevent him from injuring himself. Remove feed and water.

Prognosis

Excellent. These cases usually recover fully after simple treatment with a painkiller. Do not feed until advised by your veterinarian.

Good. Brief impaction is usually resolved after administration of a painkiller and laxative. Intensive care or surgery may be necessary with large impactions. Do not feed until advised by your veterinarian.

Good to poor. Surgery is likely to be necessary. If the intestine is strangulated, the response to treatment depends on the extent of the problem and how soon surgery can be completed. Do not feed or water until advised by your veterinarian.

Guarded. Recovery depends on the amount of injury to the intestine, and whether the horse's immune system, combined with antibiotics, can stop the infection. Do not feed or water until advised by your veterinarian.


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