Colic is one of the most common disorders that horses experience. It is also one of the most feared maladies a horse owner can face. You can improve your horse’s chances of a good outcome by recognizing the signs of colic early.
Colic in horses is not a specific disease diagnosis, nor is it an indication of the condition’s cause or a prognosis for recovery. Colic simply means “abdominal pain.” For example, a mare in the second stage of labor may display colicky signs until her foal is delivered. Colic can have a variety of causes, including internal parasites, sudden feed changes, gastrointestinal ulcers, ingestion of toxic plants and displaced positioning of sections of bowel. As a horse owner, you should be familiar with signs of colic and promptly report your concerns to your veterinarian.
While not every horse with colic presents in the same way, these are the common signs of colicky horses:
• Loss of appetite
• Abnormal posturing
• Abnormal behavior (e.g., pawing, recumbency, rolling, looking at his abdomen)
• No fecal passage or, less commonly, diarrhea
• Abdominal distension
Consider your horse’s recent history and report it to your veterinarian when you call:
• Does your horse have a history of colic episodes?
• Has there been a change in concentrate feed, quality of hay or pasture grass?
• Has a de-worming medication been given?
• If your horse is a mare, has she recently foaled?
• If your patient is a foal, what is the sex and how old is the foal?
• If your horse is a stallion, is there noticeable enlargement of the scrotal contents?
• Does your horse receive medications daily or frequently—especially any NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs)?
• Are any other horses in your barn showing colic signs?
Assess your horse’s condition using a prepared checklist. The completed list can provide important information for your veterinarian and facilitate a faster, more accurate diagnosis. Your checklist might include:
• How long has your horse been displaying abnormal behavior?
• Is he standing up or lying down? Or, does he frequently alternate between the two?
• Is he being quiet?
• Is he rolling?
• Is his behavior violent?
2. Vital signs:
• Gum color (use the actual gum, not the ocular (eye) conjunctiva; if your horse has rolled and introduced any dust into the eyes, the conjunctiva will appear bright red which is not an accurate reflection of a horse‘s cardiovascular function)
• Respiratory rate (count chest movement by observing around the last rib)
• Pulse (if you have an actual stethoscope or smartphone stethoscope)
• State of hydration (pull a fold of skin on your horse’s neck and then release it, counting the number of seconds it takes for it to return to its normal appearance)
3. Attitude: Is your horse bright, alert, dull, depressed or anxious?
4. Appetite: Does your horse have slight, moderate, normal or no appetite?
5. Defecation: Has your horse’s defecation been slight, moderate, normal or not at all?
6. Urination: Has your horse’s urination been slight, moderate, normal or not at all?
As soon as you record your observations, call your equine veterinarian with your list in hand. Based on your observations and the horse’s history, your veterinarian can determine whether a medical appointment is indicated or suggest steps you can take at the farm.
It is important to understand what steps you should not take if your horse experiences colic. DO NOT:
• Delay contacting your veterinarian. The sooner a patient is diagnosed and appropriately treated, the better chance he will have to recover. Timing of care is especially important for horses whose condition must be corrected surgically.
• Attempt to administer fluids (especially mineral oil) by mouth. Doing so can risk having your horse inhale fluid into his trachea; some horses may develop subsequent respiratory problems.
• Administer prescription medications without your veterinarian’s guidance. Some commonly available medications may worsen your horse’s condition or temporarily mask symptoms (e.g., Banamine [flunixin]) that your veterinarian needs to observe to accurately diagnose your horse’s condition;
• Attempt to force your horse, who may be in pain, to remain standing as doing so may put you or other handlers at risk for serious injury.
Here are some things you can do while you wait for your veterinarian to arrive:
• Walking can be a helpful distraction for your horse from his pain, prevent violent rolling and may also stimulate gut motility.
• While flunixin (Banamine) may be helpful, ask your veterinarian before administering.
• Definitely remove all feed and hay; however, do leave water for your horse in case he chooses to drink.
If your horse is insured against colic or has mortality insurance, be sure to discuss the policy details with your veterinarian. He or she can advise you about when it is appropriate to notify your insurance company.
Finally, recognize that your veterinarian may choose to refer your horse to an equine referral hospital for specialized care or surgery. Your veterinarian can provide you with the hospital’s contact details and send the case history ahead before your horse arrives for treatment. If you do not own a horse trailer, ask your veterinarian for a contact who can provide emergency shipping.
The horse owner and veterinarian share a common goal when caring for a horse with colic: Reach an accurate diagnosis as quickly as possible, alleviate the horse’s pain and provide prompt care that achieves resolution of a difficult condition.
Harry W. Werner, VMD, has practiced equine medicine and surgery since his 1974 graduation from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. He was 2009 American Association of Equine Practitioners president. He is a member of the American Veterinary Medical Association Animal Welfare Committee, a director of the World Equine Veterinary Association and is the AVMA Liaison to the Unwanted Horse Coalition. He is an adjunct instructor in the Department of Animal Science at University of Massachusetts Amherst. The estate of Seth and Lucy Holcombe honored Dr. Werner with the Dr. Harry Werner Professorship in Equine Medicine at New Bolton Center, University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine.