Colic is classified as a veterinary emergency alongside a wound or injury to a joint and, an episode of uncontrollable bleeding, so decisions about intervention in colic cases need to be well considered and thoughtful but they do need to be made quickly. Colic remains the leading medical cause of death in the equine population.
What is colic?
In simple terms, colic in horses refers to abdominal pain irrespective of cause or point of origin. Horses have small stomachs and a very long digestive tract and colic symptoms are usually associated with the latter.
Colic is characterised by symptoms ranging from mild discomfort to uncontrollable pain which leads to huge levels of anxiety and stress in the horse; other incidental injuries are therefore relatively commonplace in cases of severe colic as the horse is unable to tolerate or eliminate the pain.
Types of colic
Gas/Spasmodic colic – a build up of pressure and inflammation within the hind gut associated with excess fermentation which may be caused by too rapid a change of diet or too much exposure to spring grass although there are other causes
Impaction – put simply, a blockage. This may be caused by an accumulation of food material for example, in an elderly animal unable to chew properly because of dental compromise or a build up of sand which can be caused by insufficient grazing keep on sandy soiled pasture. Because the horse’s digestive system works via a peristaltic wave so essentially the smooth, involuntary muscle continues to pass the food matter through to the hind gut, any obstruction will cause an enormous build up of pressure. A blockage can also be caused by a harmless fatty lump called a lipoma, common in older horses; the lipoma looks like a cauliflower on a stalk and they can wrap around the intestine causing strangulation and obstruction
Intussusception – often caused as a result of parasitic damage particularly from a tapeworm burden, the intestine effectively slides inside itself like a telescope. This creates two potential problems, either one of a blockage and/or the blood supply can be cut off, this is a very dangerous form of colic
Strangulation or torsion – a twist in the colon or small intestine which can also result in cutting off the blood supply
How to handle a colic situation
- Call your vet and alert them even if the symptoms appear mild initially; if they are aware there is a potential colic case which may worsen, then they can ensure that they remain available for your call and hand this over to colleagues when they finish their shift
- Check your transport situation if you need to travel the horse quickly – it is ideal if you can take someone with you as travelling a sick horse alone is challenging to say the least, and a companion or friend can assist you should that be required
- Monitor the horse very regularly, at least every twenty minutes
- Sometimes light exercise can assist the horse if there is an obstruction as mobility promotes gut motility, you can do this by walking in hand or lungeing
- Make the decision to travel the horse to hospital before it becomes too sick; data from the University of Liverpool Leahurst Veterinary Hospital reveals that the optimum outcomes from colic surgery come from animals which are not too sick upon arrival, hence the need to make a well considered but quick decision. If the horse recovers and surgery is not required then all you will be left with is a relatively small bill for hospital livery and a horse for whom the episode has passed, if his condition worsens then he is in the best possible place for surgical intervention. Once a horse has been colicking for a while, your chances of successful intervention are already reducing and it becomes more and more difficult to travel an animal which is suffering severe pain, even with doping medication, the horse has to be sufficiently conscious to be able to travel
- Be clear on the terms of your insurance cover, most colic surgery bills are around £3,000-£5,000 without any additional complications, when you are faced with an emergency colic situation, that is not the time to be reviewing insurance terms and conditions
How to prevent colic
Colic is a word that strikes fear into any horse owner and rather frustratingly, the causes for a high proportion of colic cases remain unknown, however there are definitely good management habits that can help reduce the potential of a colic occurring:-
- Always introduce a change of feed very gradually, over a period of ten days and this includes hay unless you are absolutely certain the hay is the same as your current batch, this is so the bacteria in the hind gut have time to adapt
- Try to avoid feeding a diet which is high in starch and sugar as the horse finds this harder to process and undigested food can spill over from the stomach into the hindgut causing digestive upset
- The horse should always have access to fresh water
- If horses are on stable rest due to injury or bad weather, ensure that their water intake is maintained by feeding soaked hay and wet feeds, this reduces the risk of impaction – owners often report colicky symptoms after a freeze when horses are confined to their stables due to adverse weather conditions and are generally less thirsty because of the low temperature
- Ensure your horse has access to forage – hay or grass – at all times
- If your horse bolts his feed, try to encourage him to eat more slowly by adding a chaff or chop and feed hay from a small hole hay net; this can help slow down greedy horses who tend to not properly chew their food
- Make sure that your horse is adequately and correctly wormed following a proper programme. Horses that are part of a settled population may be monitored by the use of worm count tests which will indicate the current parasitic burden and whether there is a clinical requirement to worm or not. Your vet will offer these and there are independent laboratories as well. It is still essential to worm for tapeworm, and also encysted red worm in the winter months as a worm count does not reveal these burdens
- Ensure that the horse’s teeth are rasped annually or more frequently if there is a particular need, for example elderly horses often need closer observation. A horse which fails to chew correctly is at risk of swallowing large lumps of food material which can lead to a blockage further down the line
- And always monitor the horse carefully during changes of yard or environment and at competitions where stress levels may increase and normal routines are interrupted