Equine colic is a painful and usually temporary digestive disorder that takes place in the abdomen. At the first sight of horse colic a veterinarian should be called to diagnose and treat the underlying issue, as horses have delicate digestive systems and colic is the most common cause of death in horses. Owners can help by keeping a watchful eye for symptoms and by adhering to practices that are known to prevent it.
There are two major classes of equine colic: idiopathic (cause unknown) and non-idiopathic (cause is known). The diagnosis can range from mild – excess gas in the intestine – to severe – twisting of the intestines – with mild cases quickly turning into life-threatening problems. Colic can be classified as:
- Spasmodic/gas colic: Perhaps the least serious type of horse colic, this is a gas buildup that produces painful pressure and, in the case of spasmodic colic, uncomfortable spasms of the colon. A common cause of this form of colic is an over-fermentation of feed in the gastrointestinal track and the inability for the intestines to move gas along. However, gas colic can become deadly when the distended bowel twists, because the gas filled intestine rises to the top of the abdomen, causing the tract to flip. Colic is generally a result of parasites, stress, poor diet, and ulcers that can cause intestinal inflammation. To prevent gas colic, fresh, clean water and supplementation, such as Springtime Bee Pollen, can be fed when little grass is available and if ulcers are present. Springtime Bug Off Garlic can lower the risk of parasites and keep the immune system boosted.
- Obstructive or impaction colic: This is a blockage of sand, dirt, feed, or some other material, preventing the normal passage of food and waste. Often caused by the horse’s feed, grazing practices or parasites, inadequate hydration is a major cause of equine colic. Grazing in dusty or sandy fields can lead to consumption of impacting dirt and sand. In some cases, the impaction is caused by an enterolith. Greek for “internal stone,” an enterolith occurs when naturally occurring minerals in the horse’s body surround a foreign, indigestible body, such a clump of hair, a pebble, or a piece of cloth. When they are small enough to pass to the small intestine yet too large to pass to the manure, enteroliths can cause partial or total blockages. In some of the worst cases, the stomach can rupture due to a distended stomach from the impaction. Parasites can also be a prominent source of colic and it is important to keep nutrition and health as a priority. While we recommend a regular deworming, Springtime Bug Off Garlic and Springtime Spirulina Wafers will not only deter bugs, but can boost the immune system and flush the body of toxins. Both will also add nutritional value to everyday feedings to keep horses healthy and happy.
- Strangulation colic: The small intestine hangs in the gut suspended from a thin sheet of tissue called a mesentery. As food moves along the intestine, waves of muscular movement become crucial for proper digestion. If movement slows or stops, the bowel will fill up and can twist. Since blood vessels connect to the small intestine from the mesentery, twisting cuts off the blood supply and hinders the movement of food and waste. The lack of blood and oxygen will then cause the bowel to die. These are dire emergencies with high mortality rates. Strangulation colic can also be caused by a lipoma (fatty tumor) of the mesentery, and these lipomas can form a strangulating kink, or ring, around the intestine.
- Intussusception colic: If food and waste moving through the intestine slows or stops, bowels moving behind can crash into the non-moving bowel, causing the intestine to pull back into itself, a condition called telescoping. This is a very serious condition, with similar effects to strangulation colic (e.g., death of intestinal tissue to lack of blood flow, food/waste obstruction, and high mortality).
Equine colic is painful for the horse, and this discomfort will usually be evident, however not all horses will exhibit all or any of the symptoms. Horses also have a higher threshold for pain than their human counterparts, so days may go by before the first signs of horse colic become visible. The pain often comes in waves, and during those painful bouts, the horse will be pawing, looking toward his flank, sweating, laying down more often, and even rolling around. He may have a lowered appetite, frequent yawning and groaning, demonstrate unusual gut noises and/or a refusal to drink water. If you think your horse is colicky, call your veterinarian immediately and keep an eye on the number of times the horse defecates, the moisture level of the manure, whether the stall shows evidence of rolling or thrashing, and the horse’s temperature and pulse rate.
Treatment of Horse Colic
All types of colic are emergencies. Even if you are unsure of whether or not your horse is showing signs of colic, call your vet and give thorough vitals. While waiting for your vet, there are a number of treatments that can be done. If the horse seems to be extremely uncomfortable, walking or trotting can be useful to break up any gas in the intestine. This is also a safer alternative to the horse rolling and thrashing. You can also offer the horse a mash of beet pulp to increase appetite and stimulate intestinal motility. Fresh water should also be offered, as well as grazing for short periods of 10 minutes on and off. Avoid giving any medication, such as bute, until the vet has examined the horse. Most likely a rectal exam will have to be performed, with the possibility of surgery to relieve any twisting.
Proper nutrition and supplementation are extremely important to preventing colic. Horses are hind gut fermenters. This means that the digestive system naturally breaks down the forage in the cecum – a “blind sac” in the intestines that holds foods while it is being broken down by microbes. The nutrients, made up of carbohydrates and volatile fatty acids that provide horses with energy, are then absorbed into the colon. Because of this fermentation process, it is important to provide enough forage – grass and hay – and reduced grains and processed foods. For horses that need to gain weight or are active, soaked beet pulp can be added for calories.
It is difficult to overstate the importance of providing adequate water to horses, especially in winter temperatures when their water supply may freeze. Water helps aid in digestion, electrolyte balance and cellular function. Horses should be drinking at least 8-10 gallons of water a day and more if the weather is hot and he has been sweating. They also need the same amount of water in cold weather and the more roughage a horse consumes, the more water he may need to drink. Water can help break down food in the digestive track and move along any impaction in the intestines. Winter months tend to be the highest for impaction colic, as this is when horses are drinking less water. To help intake, water should be above 50 degrees and salt licks can be placed in the field or stall to encourage drinking. Springtime Hoof & Coat Formula to keep electrolytes in balance.
Adequate exercise has also shown to be a significant factor in reducing the incidence of colic, because movement can stimulate gas bubbles through the digestive tract. Stall bound horses should be given extra attention, and if possible, walked daily, as well as given access to free choice hay. Horses that are in the stall for longer parts of the day tend to have slower gut motility than their counterparts in open field. By mimicking, as closely as possible, their natural lifestyle, chances of horse colic prevention rise.
Of all the research available on colic, all of them give the same key advice: a quality nutritional program combined with supplementation, parasite control, exercise and fresh, clean water. However, any changes in diet or exercise, even healthy improvements, should be introduced gradually.