Disclaimer: The following is only general information. If you believe that your horse has a problem, please call your veterinarian as soon as possible.
Next to old age, colic is the number one killer of domesticated horses. Colic is a gastro-intestinal (digestive system) disturbance and its most obvious symptom is abdominal pain. There are many causes for colic and the treatment will vary depending on the cause of the colic. It is estimated that around 10% of horses will have colic each year. The most important thing to remember is that colic can kill your horse very quickly, so if you notice any of the following signs, don’t wait: Call your veterinarian immediately and tell them it is a possible colic emergency.
Signs to watch for:
Not interested in food
Looks depressed and unhappy
Pacing up and down – restless
Making too much saliva
You cannot hear gut sounds
Keeps looking around at its stomach
May start biting at its stomach
High temperature (above 38.5°C or 101.4°F)*
Low temperature (below 37.0°C or 99°F they may be going into shock)
Breathing quickly, panting*
High heart rate (above 60 beats per minute)*
Hunched with flexed muscle on the side of the belly
Grunting and groaning
Wants to lay down and/or roll
Will not get up
NOTE: Normal temperatures, respiration and heart rates are given in ‘Vital Signs’.
The early signs may be quite mild, however if you have any doubts call your vet immediately. The sooner the cause of the colic is found and treatment started, the better chance the horse will have of recovering.
Click on the picture below to see what can cause colic in different parts of the horse’s digestive system:
Causes and Types of Colic
Simple Obstruction: This is a physical obstruction of the intestine by compacted food, sand, worms (parasites), mineral deposits or foreign bodies (such as string or baling twine). The obstruction must be cleared quickly as a build up of fluids and gas behind the blockage can lead to a ruptured intestine
Strangulating Obstruction: This type of obstruction is caused by parts of the intestine either twisted, displaced and trapped or telescoping into itself. If any of these happen the blood supply will be cut off and cell death will occur.
Non-strangulated Infarction: An infarction just means tissue death due to no blood supply. The most common cause for this type of colic is a worm parasite (Strongylus vulgaris) blocking an artery.
What you can do
Before the vet arrives, try to keep the horse calm and minimise any external stress (no yelling and screaming). The horse will already be in a stressed state because of the pain; he will not need any more from your activities. If possible, try to stop the horse from rolling by getting him up off the ground and calmly walking him around in a big circle or straight line. Keep him walking until the vet arrives. If the horse rolls he may twist his intestines and cause more damage. Do not offer your horse any food, as this will make the blockage worse.
Important: Do not put yourself in danger. If the horse is in extreme pain, he may kick violently or throw himself on the ground. Keep out of the way and keep yourself safe and just wait for the vet.
You can minimise the chances of your horse ever getting colic:
Do not overfeed and avoid or minimise grains and other high carbohydrate/starch feeds
Do not buy a horse that is a ‘wind sucker’. (See Cribbing/Windsucking story below)
Do not change your horse’s diet suddenly, changes should be made gradually over 2 to 3 weeks
Do not feed horses on dirt or sand. Feed should be in a container or an elevated rack
Keep a regular feeding schedule
Regularly worm your horse with appropriate products
Annual dental care – more frequently if the horse is under 4 years or you know the horse has a problem
Do not feed a heavy meal before work
Do not feed or water before you cool down your horse after work (See ‘Feed & Pastures)
Make sure that the bulk of your horses diet is roughage (grass and/or hay). Grazing on pastures is ideal unless your horse is prone to laminitis and it is springtime or the pasture is under stress (drought, snow and heavy frost)
Lastly, before buying a horse ask if the horse has had colic. Find out what type of colic and how often has it occurred. Ask to speak to the attending veterinarian, however be careful as prior episodes can mean a high risk of future problems
Can Old Horses Survive Colic Surgery?
A recent study of 300 geriatric horses (16 to 20 years old) and 300 mature horses (4 to 15 years) indicates that geriatric horses are just as likely to survive surgery as younger horses. The survival rates after surgery were 86% (geriatric) and 83% (mature), which is about the same.
After old age colic is the number one killer of horses and aged horses are more likely to have a colic episode. It is also twice as likely that their colic will be caused by a strangulation of the small intestine. This type of colic can only be treated by surgery.
The above information is only general in nature. If you believe that your horse has a problem, please call your veterinarian as soon as possible.
Update: News Articles
Cribbing Horses More Likely To Get Colic
First published here: 27 November 2010
At last scientists have established a link between Cribbing (also called Windsucking) and Colic. Of course, this does not necessarily mean that Cribbing causes Colic, just that horses that Crib are more likely to get Colic. There could be a direct cause and effect or it could be that Cribbing and Colic are both symptoms of another problem. Either way, if your horse Cribs/Windsucks it has a far higher chance of getting Colic.
After old age, Colic is the number one cause of death in horses, so this is a serious finding.
To determine the link between the two, Rachel Malamed, DMV, and her colleagues, from the University of California, performed a retrospective study of all the colic cases from January, 2006 to December, 2008, that were treated at the University Veterinary Clinic.
Owners were asked to fill in a questionnaire about their horse’s behaviour and the data resulted in the following findings:
A positive link between Cribbing/Windsucking and Colic
No other repetitive behaviour was associated with Colic
Age was linked to Colic
Horses with an ‘anxious temperament’ were not more likely to get Colic
These results suggest a strong association, however they do not predict the type or severity of the Colic.
“The relationship between Cribbing and Colic needs to be established in order to develop effective and humane strategies to treat the behaviour, improve equine welfare, and reduce the risk of Colic,” concluded Dr Malamed.
Our comment: Cribbing or Windsucking involves a horse placing his mouth over a stationary object, biting down on it, arching the neck, then tensing the neck muscles, retracting the voice box (larynx) and finally gulping down air and finishing with a grunt. Some horses don’t use their mouth but rather lean over something solid and then use the object to arch their neck. Cribbing and Windsucking are behavioural problems that can come from boredom, stress, anxiety, nutrient deficiencies or stomach ulcers to name just a few of the causes. There are no proven cures, with collars, shocks, feed supplements, antibiotics and surgery having limited success. Some work is being done with behavioural modification training, however the results have not been scientifically tested.