Entries in How to identify Colic (1)



Healthy horse running in Paddock

Maintaining a regular exercise programme can help prevent colic...
(Photo : FDW)

"Colic is any Horse Owner's Worst Nightmare"

Fourways Equine Clinic gives us their insight into colic; the definition, treatments and prevention.


Pop Quiz : What is colic?

A. Descriptive term used to indicate gastro intestinal distress or abdominal pain.
B. One of the most common killers of healthy adult horses.
C. Have multiple causes and presentations.
D. Considered an Equine emergency, however 90% are non-surgical.
E. All of the above.

The answer is E.

Colic is any horse owner's worst nightmare and when tragedy strikes, owners need to be informed as to the seriousness of their horse's condition and how to proceed.

Here is a brief summary of what you need to know.


The main definition of colic is abdominal pain. This pain can occur suddenly or very gradually. It may even be mild, waxing and waning over several hours to days. The signs of colic in each horse are variable and it all depends on the location, severity and cause of pain.

The most common signs of colic :


  1. Frequent stretching or what appears to look like frequent attempts to urinate.
  2. Pawing the ground.
  3. Flank looking or biting.
  4. Curling the upper lip (Flehman response).
  5. Lying down more than usually or repeated standing up or lying down procedures.
  6. Rolling or thrashing.
  7. Sweating, trembling, agitation or depression.
  8. Lack of appetite.
  9. Lack of faecal production or diarrhoea.



Until proven otherwise, colic is considered an equine emergency and requires further diagnostics from a veterinarian.

First step is to ensure your horse is in a safe place and can't injure themselves when rolling or thrashing. The second step is to phone your horse's vet for treatment.

Giving your horse any medication before a vet has done a clinical examination could hide important indications that the colic is more serious than it appears. It is always important to disclose all relevant information to the vet with regards to previous colic episodes, change in management, current condition and medication.

The vet check :


  1. The horse's demeanour - stressed, depressed, painful, agitated.
  2. The eyes and mouth - the colour of the mucous membranes can tell the state of pain (pale) or if the horse is in toxic shock (Bright red/purple). The capillary refill time will also aid in deciding whether the horse is dehydrated or cardiovascular compromised from shock.
  3. Heart Rate - Normal 24 - 40 beats per min in healthy horses.
  4. Respiratory rate - 6 - 12 breaths per min in stable horses.
  5. Abdominal sounds - Horses suffering from colic may have either increased gut sounds in the case of spasmodic colic or decreased gut sounds when intestines become compromised.
  6. Temperature - Normal 36.5 - 38.5°C. Some horses suffering from viruses may show signs of colic seen as a high temp, while horses that are in shock may have low body temps.
  7. Rectal - Gives your vet the greatest diagnostic information. This procedure allows vets to feel if all the internal organs are in their correct places.
  8. Naso-gastric incubation (passing a stomach tube) - Due to the fact that horses are unable to vomit, it is extremely important to pass a tube to drain excessive fluid off the stomach and prevent gastric rupture.



More than 90% of colic's are medically treatable and don't require surgery. Of these medical colic's, 80% can be treated at the yard and don't require hospitalization.

Medical treatment at the yard : Most colic's fall into this category. If the horses vital signs are all stable, the rectal is within normal limits and the horse responds to pain medication, yard treatment is usually successful. The most common cause of these colic's is impaction, gas or spasmodic colic and grain overload.

Medical treatment in hospital : Horses at the yard that have a moderately increased pulse (40 - 50bpm) and respiratory (+20) rate, requiring regular pain medication, refluxing large volumes of fluid, dehydrated or have mildly abnormal rectal's generally require hospital medical treatment. Medical hospital colic's include - nephron-splenic entrapment, severe impactions, mild displacements without vascular compromise, enteritis, colitis and ileus.

Surgical treatment : The biggest indication for surgery is the lack of response to medical treatment by the vet or an inability for pain medication to bring relief. Horses that are in shock i.e. high pulse (+60), laboured breathing, toxic membranes, dehydrated and trembling generally always require surgery. Other indications for surgery would include an abnormal rectal or ultrasound showing compromised gut walls. The goals of surgery are to relieve pain, correct fluid imbalances, identify and repair the cause of colic and to stimulate and maintain intestinal transit. The earlier surgery is performed, the less chance there is of diseased gut, lessening the prognosis of survival. Surgical colic's can include - small intestinal torsion, small intestinal impaction, severe enteritis, large colon displacement, large colon torsion, severe large colon impactions and enteroliths.


Not all cases of colic can be prevented, but appropriate and consistent management will decrease the chances of colic. Ways to minimize colic bouts include :


  1. Maintaining a regular exercise programme.
  2. Free access to water at all times.
  3. Consistent feeding schedule with balance between roughag and concentrates.
  4. Controlling internal parasites.
  5. If changes do need to be made in routine or diet, it is best to do so slowly and avoid changing more than 1 factor at any given time.


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