Colic in horses in simple terms means a bellyache.
It is a much more complicated and serious issue, according to Dr. James Moore, University of Georgia veterinarian, Athens, Georgia.
“Colic in horses is defined as abdominal pain, or most simply a stomachache. But it is a clinical sign rather than a diagnosis,” Moore said.
The term colic encompasses all forms of gastrointestinal conditions which cause pain as well as other causes of abdominal aches.
“Most common forms of colic are gastrointestinal in nature and are most often related to colonic disturbance,” Moore clarified.
There are a variety of different causes of colic, some of which can prove fatal without surgical intervention.
“Colic surgery is usually an expensive procedure as it is major abdominal surgery, often with intensive aftercare,” the veterinarian said.
Among domesticated horses, colic is the leading cause of premature death. “Incidence of colic in the general horse population is between 4 and 10 percent in their lifetime,” Moore said.
Numerous clinical signs are associated with colic. The most common include: pawing repeatedly, kicking, looking at the flank, lying down, rolling, and curling the upper lip.
Other indications of colic are repeatedly raising a rear leg, kicking, sweating, arching the neck, and stretching out.
Additional apparent colic sigs include straining to defecate, distention of the abdomen, loss of appetite, depression, and decreased bowel movements.
“It is uncommon for a horse with colic to exhibit all of these signs,” Moore said. “Although they are reliable indicators of pain, particular signs do not indicate which portion of the gastrointestinal tract is involved.”
A diagnosis can be made and appropriate treatment begun only after thoroughly examining the horse.
“The list of possible conditions that cause colic is long,” Moore said. “It is reasonable first to determine the most likely type of disease, begin appropriate treatments and then more specific diagnosis.”
Horses with colic may need either medical or surgical treatments. “Almost all require medical treatment, but only those with certain mechanical obstructions of the intestine need surgery.” Dr. Moore said.
The type of medical treatment is determined by the cause of colic and the severity of the disease.
“In some instances, the horse may be treated medically first and the response evaluated,” the veterinarian said. “This is particularly appropriate if the horse is mildly painful and the cardiovascular system is functioning normally.”
Ultrasonography can be used to evaluate the effectiveness of nonsurgical treatment. “If necessary, surgery can be used for diagnosis as well as treatment,” Moore added.
Each case of colic is unique. “Horses are prone to colic and many types of colic aren’t preventable,” Moore said. “But you can take some simple steps to ensure your horse is at the lowest possible risk for colic.
“Above all, be a proactive owner,” the veterinarian continued. “If your horse is at unnecessary risk for colic, try to change the situation. Certain measures should reduce colic risk, but don’t guarantee to eliminate it.”
Horses should always have fresh, clean water. Research shows horses without water for one to two hours had increased risk of colic.
“This risk increased 10 times in horses over six years old,” Moore said. “Horses prefer to drink out of buckets compared to automatic waterers, because they can drink large amounts more quickly.”
In the winter, it’s essential to assure free flowing water. Horses will drink more in colder weather if the water is warm.
“When traveling on longer trips, stop to let the horses drink,” Moore advised.
Horses with access to pastures had lower colic risk than horses without pasture access.
Research shows feeding from round bales increases the risk of colic. “This increase may relate to a decrease in hay quality due to weather exposure and storage outside,” Moore speculated.
Feeding horses on the ground in sandy areas increases risk of colic. “To reduce the amount of sand eaten, use feed tubs or hay racks,” Moore suggested. “Catch mats or pans can be placed underneath racks, so horses will eat scraps without sand.”
For every one-pound increase in grain fed, colic risk increases 70 percent, compared to horses fed 100 percent hay. “Pelleted feeds led to 6 to 9.5 times increased colic risk, research indicates. Sweet feeds led to 4 to 7.5 times increased colic risk.
Colic risk increases within two weeks following changes in exercise, stabling, or diet. Farms making more than four feed changes in a year have three times the incidence of colic.
“Even changing the batch of hay can increase the risk of colic,” Moore said. “Make only gradual changes in diet, housing and exercise whenever possible.
“To make feed changes, mix one-fourth new with three-fourths old for seven days, then increase the new feed,” he recommended.
Routine floating of a horse’s teeth ensures that the horse chews its feedstuff properly and thoroughly, the veterinarian pointed out.
“Horses on a daily or regular worming program are less likely to colic,” Moore emphasized.
Horses are two to three times less likely to colic when receiving care from their owner compared to a stable manager or trainer. An owner will pick up on subtle signs or changes in habit more quickly because of familiarity with horse’s “normal.”
“Colic is a complex but very common problem in horses,” Dr. Moore summarized. “Watch horses that have had colic before. These horses have a higher risk of colic, and early treatment is important.”