Managing Colic

Colic is a leading cause of death for horses. Here’s a refresher on dealing with this unpredictable illness.

With all the frightening equine diseases now in the spotlight—from EPM to EEE to West Nile Virus—it might be easy to overlook something so run-of-the-mill as colic. Yet colic remains a leading cause of illness and death in horses. That makes understanding the ailment an absolute must for you and your entire farm staff. From knowing the best methods of prevention to understanding the most appropriate actions to take, your know-how could make a life-or-death difference to the horses in your care.

Trouble and Pain

As you’re no doubt aware, colic isn’t a disease, and it has no vaccine. Rather, it’s a collection of symptoms that indicates trouble in the abdominal cavity. “Anything creating pain in the abdominal region can present as colic, including a blockage, a displaced intestine, gas build-up, an infection of the abdominal cavity, or liver and kidney problems,” says Paul Schiltz, DVM, a practitioner at Equine Medical Services in Columbia, Missouri.

The result of such inner disorder can be anything from mild discomfort to severe pain. Mild cases are not usually life threatening and can typically be managed medically with your vet’s assistance. These incidents, thankfully, comprise the vast majority of colic cases, says Schiltz.

In the remaining minority of severe cases, the horse typically displaces or twists an intestine. This results in compromised blood supply (ischemia), lowered oxygen levels, death of tissue (necrosis), release of bacteria and other toxins, damage to the gut at a cellular level, endotoxic shock and potentially death. These are the cases that require surgery.

Simple Defenses

The good news is, a few basic tenets of good stable management can help you significantly reduce the risk that either type of colic will crop up at your barn. And chances are good you already have at least some of these practices in place.

For instance, your number-one defense, says Schiltz, is simply regular deworming. “Over the years, it’s been shown conclusively that a good daily or quarterly deworming program greatly reduces the risk of colic,” he says. (Some daily dewormer manufacturers—such as Pfizer, which makes Strongid-C—even offer incentive programs that amount to free colic surgery insurance.)

The second colic-prevention step, says Schiltz, is maximizing your horses’ grazing time. “There’s some debate on this,” he admits, “and it’s somewhat dependent on the area and on pasture management. For instance, when the grass is lush and a horse is not used to it, that can actually contribute to colic. But a horse is designed to eat large volumes of low-quality feed almost continuously, and the further you get from that—feeding two to three times a day with a concentrated feed—the more you start to cause trouble.”

Even if you don’t have grassy grazing areas, turnout in a dirt paddock will still help. “Reduced time outside or a recent increase in the time spent in a stall is a risk factor associated with colic,” says Schiltz. “But stress-free exercise without a rider is beneficial. In some situations, it’s not easy, but every bit you can do helps.” That’s at least partly because the horse’s body movement helps digestion by regulating motility, or gut movement, that pushes food through the intestines.

Of course, proper dental care and a good vaccination program, developed in conjunction with your veterinarian, will also assist in decreasing colic incidence on your farm simply by helping to maintain the horses’ overall health.

Food and Water

Diet is the third major factor in controlling colic risk, notes Schiltz. In particular, dramatic alterations in the type or quality of feed can quickly cause digestive upset. Perhaps the most common error is increasing grain rations too rapidly, but problems can also arise when switching from one type of grain or hay to another. While there are no hard and fast formulas for correctly making such dietary changes, Schiltz says to think in terms of weeks rather than days.

When switching types of feed, he suggests removing a small portion of the current feed from each serving and replacing it with the same quantity of new feed. Over time, you then gradually increase the amount of new and reduce the amount of old until the switch is complete. Likewise, if you are increasing the amount of feed, make the change slowly by adding a small additional quantity at each feeding and gradually increasing the amount until you’ve reached the new level.

(Schiltz considers these tips as good general guidelines. But for advice specific to an individual horse and situation, he recommends consulting your primary care vet.)

Hay and grain aren’t the only diet-related colic concerns. Keeping your horse hydrated is also critical to reducing the chance of colic. When a horse doesn’t have enough fluid in his system, food in the digestive tract gets dry and doesn’t move along the intestine easily, leading to blockages.

Most people think of dehydration in connection with summer heat, and certainly it’s imperative to keep cool, fresh water in front of your horses during that season. But dehydration is also a problem in winter, when dry, low-moisture forage (hay) takes the place of fresh, juicy grass, and when drinking water freezes over or becomes unappealingly chilled. Providing warm water (perhaps via bucket heaters) and even electrolytes in the winter can go a long way toward keeping the horses in your barn well hydrated and their digestive systems flowing smoothly along.

Warning Signs

Even the best management practices, unfortunately, don’t guarantee that colic will never touch your facility. Horses are sensitive creatures, and their digestive systems follow suit. An overload of excitement and stress, for instance, can be enough to cause a bout of mild colic. Thus, it makes sense to know colic’s warning signs and what to do if they appear.

The common symptoms of colic include:

  • changes in or loss of appetite
  • restlessness, anxiety, depression, isolation
  • reduced manure output
  • distended abdomen
  • change in or lack of gut sounds
  • circling, pawing, rolling or repeatedly laying down and rising
  • looking at or kicking flank or abdomen area
  • stretched or crouched stance
  • sweating
  • elevated heart rate, respiration rate and/or capillary refill time
  • pale or bluish mucous membranes

A horse with colic won’t necessarily exhibit all of these signs, and you shouldn’t wait for the most severe symptoms to appear before requesting help. “Anytime a horse looks colicky, it’s probably a good idea to call the vet,” says Schiltz. “Even if things are normal by the time he arrives, it gives the vet a baseline to look back on if the situation recurs or doesn’t improve.”

More important, he adds, a mild colic can often be treated easily and completely if it’s treated early. Waiting could lead to more trouble. “If you keep waiting and checking on the horse every hour, a lot of things can happen [in that time], and then [the colic] can be more difficult to treat.”

When you do call the vet, be prepared to fill him in on the horse’s vital stats and other symptoms, his colic history and information on any recent changes in diet, exercise, environment and so forth.

While You Wait

While you’re waiting for the vet to arrive, says Schiltz, “The number-one thing you can do is keep the horse comfortable.” In many cases, this can be achieved—or at least helped along—with light hand-walking.

But, cautions Schiltz, “The biggest misconception is that the horse has to stay on its feet.”

If the horse is rolling violently or thrashing around, it is best to get him up. However, that’s only to prevent injury and not, as is commonly thought, to keep the horse’s intestines from twisting. “If the horse is in so much pain that it is thrashing around, then probably a displacement or twist has already occurred,” says Schiltz. On the other hand, he adds, “If the horse is lying quietly, it’s fine to let him be.”

The question of personally administering medication naturally arises whenever a horse is experiencing pain, and it’s not necessarily out of line when the horse shows signs of colic. For instance, if your barn is in a remote area and veterinary help may take hours to arrive, you might ease the horse’s distress with a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory, says Schiltz. (He notes that Banamine is the most popular and perhaps most effective choice.) However, he adds, “Ideally I wouldn’t treat the horse before the vet arrives, and I would at least talk to the vet before treating, so he can make a recommendation.”

Finally, make sure to remove all hay and grain from the stall and keep disturbances to a minimum. At this point, you can then step back and simply monitor the horse’s condition until the vet arrives. And, if you’ve followed all the steps to here, you can also rest assured knowing you’ve made all the right moves to secure the health and well-being of that horse and to reduce as much as possible the risk of colic in your barn.






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