Colic can be a very scary condition for horse owners, and much of that fear comes from the unknown. The reason that there is so much unknown about colic in horses is because it encompasses so many different medical conditions in the horse. Colic is a medical term abdominal pain, that discomfort can come from anywhere along the gastro-intestinal tract as well as pain from elsewhere in the horses body that is masquerading as abdominal pain. Therefore, there are literally hundreds of disease conditions in the horse that can result in colic.
The signs of colic can be as different as the causes; these signs can include, but are not limited to, depression/lethargy, stretching out, repeated looking at the flank, teeth grinding, repeated pawing at the ground, kicking at the abdomen, repeated and violent rolling, throwing themselves on the ground, or an inability or unwillingness to get up.
If you notice any of the above signs of colic in your horse, or if your horse is acting strange in any way, it is important to contact your veterinarian immediately. It is important not to “wait and see” prior to contacting your vet because in many cases of colic as well as other serious medical conditions, the sooner treatment is initiated the better the outcomes will be. When you initially contact your vet, you should tell them exactly what behaviours your horse is exhibiting and, if you can, tell them what your horse’s heart rate, capillary refill time and mucus membranes are like. These are simple parameters that will help to tell your veterinarian determine the level of pain that your horse is in, as well as a basic indication of the cardiovascular status of your horse. The next time your vet is out for a routine visit ask them to show you how to take these measurements as well as what normal looks like. It is also important not to administer any drugs like phenylbutazone or banamine to your horse prior to contacting your veterinarian, as these drugs can cloud the decision making of your veterinarian when time is of the essence.
The vast majority of colic cases will get better on their own without any medical treatment. The bulk of cases after those that get better on their own will respond to simple medical therapy, such as intravenous pain medications, and sedatives as well as naso-gastric intubation and administration of mineral oil, electrolytes and anti-gaz. It is the slim minority of colic cases that will require abdominal surgery or unfortunately can be fatal. Colic surgery is not something that can be done in the field; it needs to be performed in the controlled setting of an equine referral hospital.
Only your veterinarian will be able to tell you what the best treatment plan for your horse would be, so again, if you notice any of the above signs of colic in your horse the best thing to do is to immediately contact your veterinarian.
Rand Davis DVM
Animal Care Centre of Strathmore