Friday, 25 March 2016

All About ... Colic

What is it?

Colic is basically abdominal pain and there are several different types.  They often display similar signs but some are more serious than others.  However, colic is potentially fatal so don’t hesitate and make sure you call the vet as soon as possible to give your horse the best chance.

Flatulent Colic


  • Pain is less severe than for Spasmodic colic
  • Horse will appear to be ‘dull’
  • Pawing ground
  • Frequent attempts to urinate
  • May try to lie down/roll but appears hesitant to do so
  • Enlarged abdomen on upper right flank
  • Changes to breathing
  • Small amounts of dung and/or gas passed


Large amounts of gas formed in large intestines because the horse has eaten too much lush grass or clover (or other legumes).


Call vet. 

Gastric Dilation

The horse will often have a history of eating too much, being greedy.

  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Horse kicks at stomach
  • Rolls and may ‘throw’ self on ground
  • Swollen abdomen
  • Rapid breathing
  • Sweating
  • Death can occur suddenly if stomach ruptures


Again large amounts of gas formed in the large intestines because the horse has eaten too much grain, mouldy hay or young clover.  The stomach distends causing muscles at both ends to close which in turn prevents the gas escaping.


Call vet immediately.  




  • Develops more slowly and signs may disappear for a few days before reappearing more violently.
  • Horse will appear to be ‘dull’
  • Small quantities of dung passed which are drier and harder than usual
  • Horse will keep looking at flanks
  • May lie down and then get up again … and repeat
  • Lying on side with legs and head extended is a characteristic pose


Impaction of small and large intestines (constipation) due to bolting food or intake of poor quality roughage – causing difficulty in digestion.  A large bolus will form!


Call vet.


Similar to Choke.  Slow horse’s eating, large stones in food, small holed haynets.  Only feed good quality food. 

Obstruction Colic


  • Violent pain
  • Restless
  • Pawing ground
  • Looking at flanks
  • Kicking out
  • Throws self on ground
  • Violent rolling
  • Sweating
  • Rapid breathing
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Rapid pulse
  • Dehydration
  • No gut sounds


There are various causes, may be a twisted bowel or strangulated intestines as the result of a hernia.  Sometimes the intestines can ‘telescope’ one section inside the other.


Call vet URGENTLY.  

Spasmodic Colic


  • Sudden and severe pain followed by an interval of calm
  • Pawing the ground
  • Stamps hind feet
  • Kicks at stomach
  • Crouches as though to lie down
  • Looks at flanks
  • Stretches as if to urinate
  • Pain attacks will become more frequent and last longer
  • Rolling and getting up
  • Frequent, rapid and loud intestinal sounds


The pain is caused by strong and rapid contraction of the muscles in the walls of the intestines.  Poorly digested food will upset the mobility of the intestines and this leads to spasmodic colic.  This can be due to sharp teeth so the horse finds it difficult and painful to chew.  If a horse is excited, exhausted, stressed or overworked the mobility of the gut will also be upset.  Migrating immature red worm larvae can also cause spasmodic colic.  In addition spasmodic colic can be an early sign of small intestine obstruction. 


Call vet.  Gently walk the horse whilst waiting to help ease the pain and prevent injury.


Regular Worm Egg counts and when necessary worming.  Also, regular dental checks and treatment to ensure teeth are not sharp and are able to chew food adequately. 


The vet will use a variety of methods to assess and treat colic.  The vet will listen to the abdominal sounds, take a pulse and check the respiration rate.  Pain killers are usually given to ease the pain and reduce the horse’s distress.  Depending on the type of colic suspected the vet may perform an internal examination and try to remove any faeces that may be causing a blockage.  Other drugs may be given to alleviate the gut spasms. 

If the horse does not improve then fluid may be given through a stomach tube inserted into the nostril but guided down the oesophagus.  This is intended to soften any blockage and/or ease it along.  It can be quite distressing to watch and often causes the nose to bleed considerably.

Sometimes colic surgery is necessary to save a horse’s life.  It needs to be performed early to have the highest chance of success.  It is also important to weigh up the distress this could cause to the horse or if it would be kinder to end their pain.   

Preventing colic is sometimes difficult, however, there are things that we can do to reduce the chances of it occurring.

  • Always have clean fresh water available 
  • Regular dental check ups 
  • Gradual changes to diet 
  • Worm/Egg count regularly 
  • Good quality hay and feed 
  • Limit access to lush pasture 
  • Don't leave a horse without roughage for too long - upsets gut mobility 
  • Don't exercise too soon after bucket feed 
  • Allow horse to eat in a calm environment 
  • Slow horses eating 
  • Do not feed on the ground in sandy areas - ingestion of the sand causes colic 
  • Get to know what your horse's 'normal' dung looks like - and monitor for changes

Have you seen this week's video 'Feedroom tidy AGAIN ... and a little bit of shopping' on my You Tube channel.   
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Until next time!

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