2938 Vet. Med. Basic Sciences Bldg.
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
By Theresa A. Fuess, Ph.D.
University of Illinois
College of Veterinary Medicine
"Colic refers to any abdominal pain in a horse," says Dr. David Freeman, equine veterinarian at the University of Illinois Veterinary Medicine Teaching Hospital at Urbana. "Many conditions that cause horses abdominal pain are potentially life-threatening and require immediate attention. Horse owners should be aware of the signs of colic so it can be treated without delay."
A horse with colic can express discomfort in several ways. A horse may paw at the ground, roll, sweat, look at the flank area, or kick at the abdomen. Some horses will restlessly change positions, shift weight from one leg to another, or alternately lie down and get up. Some horses will stand motionless, looking depressed and anxious.
The most common cause of colic, impaction of fecal material in the large intestine, is also easiest to prevent and to treat. Obstruction caused by twisted or herniated segments of intestine usually require surgical correction. Other conditions that can cause the same signs as colic include founder and tying-up. Any time a horse shows signs of colic, especially if the horse is not passing feces, remove all feed and contact your veterinarian right away.
"The risk of colic can be minimized with diet," says Dr. Freeman. "The type of feed, the feeding schedule, and the availability and consumption of water are all important. Horses are grazers and their digestive system works best when it continuously processes fiber and water. Starting and stopping the system by feeding only once or twice a day disrupts the normal gastrointestinal physiology." Withholding feed, even for short periods, can cause gastric ulcers in horses. Changes in feed, particularly access to lush spring pastures after a winter on hay, and changes in the horse's daily routine can also cause colic.
Horses fed only free-choice forage (pasture, hay, or both) with continuous access to fresh water have the lowest risk of colic. In fact, studies have shown that the incidence of colic increases with the proportion of grain in the diet. The type of grain fed makes a difference too. Horses fed sweet feed or corn are at higher risk than those fed pellets or oats.
"The risk associated with grain can be minimized by feeding rations in small portions throughout the day," says Dr. Freeman. "Alternatively, the horse could be provided unlimited grass hay that is high in fiber between meals."
The availability of water can be a problem in winter months in areas with freezing temperatures. Not only is access to water that is not frozen essential, but the temperature of the water is important too. Horses will consume 40 percent more warm (40 degrees Fahrenheit) water than water at near-freezing temperatures. "Providing warm water will increase the volume of water consumed and decrease the risk of large colon impaction during cold weather," advises Dr. Freeman.
A horse with colic needs immediate care. Your veterinarian will administer pain-killers to help the horse relax and laxatives to soften the impaction. If the horse does not respond within a couple of hours, more sophisticated diagnostic tests and/or surgery may be required.
What about walking the horse while you wait for the veterinarian? "Walking in itself is not therapeutic," says Dr. Freeman. "The signs of colic will decrease because walking prevents the horse from displaying these signs." Walking a violently painful horse can distract the horse and prevent self-destruction. A horse that must be ceaselessly walked to lessen signs of colic is a horse that should be seen by a veterinarian.
Another myth is that rolling will cause or increase the severity of colic. Most horses roll a few times every day. "If rolling were a risk factor, we'd see a lot more colicky horses than we do."
"The biggest mistake horse owners make," warns Dr. Freeman, "is to feed a horse with colic. It is a mistaken belief that a truly sick horse won't eat. Eating will only add food material to the obstruction, increase the intestinal distention, exacerbate the pain, and make treatment far more difficult."
For more information about horse management, contact your
local equine veterinarian.