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Equine Colic

Resting is normal, but if you see a horse repeatedly lie down and get up, or if he's assumed an odd position, he may be colicking. Photo by Bob Langrish.

The word colic strikes fear in every equine owner's heart. While we have come a long way in understanding, treating and reducing the risk of colic, equine colic is still something that can take your horse's life. Equine colic remains on the top of the list of medical emergencies.

Recognize the signs of colic in horses, including horse colic symptoms, with this FREE guide—How to Help Your Horse Survive Colic: Advances in diagnosis and treatment increase your horse's chances for a swift and complete recovery..

What Is Colic?
Colic is abdominal pain in horses that can have many causes. Basically, a problem with any of the organs in the abdomen can cause abdominal pain-liver, spleen, urinary tract, reproductive tract or intestines. The vast majority of horse colics are caused by problems in the intestinal tract, but because the symptoms are largely nonspecific, only a veterinary exam can tell you what's causing the problem.

Symptoms of Colic
The horse will "tell" you his belly is hurting in a variety of ways. Some of these are fairly specific for abdominal problems; others are not.

Kicking at the belly. Unless the horse is being bothered by flies, this is a fairly specific symptom.
Turning to look at and/or biting at the belly or flank. Same as kicking at the belly. The horse may rest quietly, or may alternate between lying flat and lying on his sternum.
Restlessness. Horse may lie down and get up repeatedly, or pace.
Nosing at water but not drinking.
Grunting or groaning. Usually more likely to do this when they are down. May also be present with chest pain. Some horses may lift their lip or grind their teeth.
Pawing at the ground. May indicate more severe pain than the previous signs.
Rolling and/or thrashing when down. This indicates severe pain. Foals will often lie on their backs with their feet in the air.
Change in manure. This includes no/less manure, diarrhea, change in size of the fecal balls, manure covered with mucus (which will look like a veil).
Excessive gas production, abnormal abdominal sounds, or a complete lack of sound. Gut sounds that are obviously louder than normal and can be heard without a stethoscope. (Your vet will also use a stethoscope to detect other abnormalities in the intestinal sounds, including hearing no sounds at all.)
Abnormal postures. Standing stretched out or a horse sitting on his haunches like a dog.
Changes in mouth and gum color. Abnormally pale, or abnormally red or dark, or failure to regain color when pressed upon.
Nonspecific signs that tell you the horse is distressed. These include depression, poor appetite, sweating, increased pulse rate, breathing more rapidly.


Types of Colic
Any condition involving an abdominal organ will cause the symptoms of colic. It doesn't have to involve the bowel. Heavily pregnant mares for example are often colicky because the ligaments of the uterus are being stretched or due to slight twists in the uterus. If your horse is showing colic symptoms though, odds are he probably has an intestinal problem.

The simplest type of colic is spasmodic or "gas" colic. When this happens, a segment of intestine isn't moving normally. Gas starts to build up and the horse gets uncomfortable. The exact sequence of events is usually not clear. There are several potential causes of irritation to the bowel, including parasites, digestive upset from a new feed, toxins in a feed, temporary displacement of a section of the bowel, partial obstructions (incomplete impaction), even irritation from sand/dirt in the gut.

Enteritis is inflammation of the bowel, usually caused by some type of infectious organism. If you have ever had food poisoning or a viral infection in your bowel, you know how painful this can be.

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