Colic is simply a term for any abdominal pain in a horse. Environmental causes of colic in horses can include high grain diets, moldy feed, dehydration, sand ingestion, stress, abrupt feed changes, dental problems, parasite infestations, gastric ulcers, and long-term use of certain medications, such as NSAIDs.
There are also many types of colic, including over production of gas, impaction of feed material, displacement or twisting of part of the gastrointestinal tract, inflammation of the small intestine (also known as enteritis), impairment of small intestinal movement (also known as ileus), and stones (enteroliths), which are formed in the GI tract. The most common signs of colic include pawing, laying down more than usual, looking at their side, stretching out, sweating, uneasiness, loss of appetite, kicking at their belly, rolling and bloating. Your horse will typically have decreased gut sounds and an elevated heart rate due to being in pain. Colic can be a severe, life-threatening issue so it is important that your horse receive medical attention immediately to determine the cause.
While you wait on your veterinarian, be sure to observe your horse for changes in behavior, pay attention to your horse’s breathing and, if possible, heart rate. Make note of bowel movements (how much and what do they look like). Remove all feed and hay material, however, leave water readily available.
It is important to discuss any medications with a veterinarian prior to administering them. If you have a horse that has had colic, you may have some left over medications from your vet. A common NSAID, flunixin meglumine, can be given (with your veterinarian’s advice) as an intravenous injection for pain relief. It is extremely important to remember that even though this medication is typically labeled for intramuscular injections, it can cause a severe bacterial infection at the injection site that can lead to large abscesses, severe complications and even death. If you are uncomfortable giving an intravenous injection, this NSAID can be given by mouth by simply squirting it into the oral cavity. This provides a slower acting but safer alternative.
Upon arrival, your veterinarian will do a physical exam and assess your horse’s mucous membrane color, heart rate, respiratory rate, gut sounds and general mentation. They will likely sedate your horse, perform a rectal examination, and pass a nasogastric tube to check for fluid sitting on the stomach, which is known as reflux. Bloodwork may also be performed to assess your horse’s hydration status, electrolyte changes and look for signs of inflammation or infection. If available, an ultrasound exam may also be performed to look at the gastrointestinal tract to ensure correct anatomical location. Motility (movement), dilation (enlargement) or thickening of the GI tract can also be observed. These tools, tests and assessments will allow your veterinarian to decide what type of colic your horse is likely to have and what the next step in treating the problem should be.
Some cases of colic can be simply treated medically, which includes pain medication and tubing the horse with mineral oil. Other cases require more aggressive treatment including intravenous fluids, around the clock monitoring or even surgical intervention. Being an observant horse owner will allow for early diagnosis and treatment, which is imperative for successful management of colic.