Colic simply means pain originating in the abdomen. It isn’t a specific disease or problem, it’s a symptom.
Most abdominal pain is related to the intestinal tract, but it could also be pancreatitis, liver problems, urinary difficulties, tumors, abscesses, reproductive-tract disease or problems with the blood vessels or lymphatic systems within the abdomen. To make matters even more complicated, any given problem could have secondary effects.
The signs and symptoms of abdominal pain, in increasing severity, are:
• Poor appetite or loss of appetite.
• Increased respiratory rate.
• Increased pulse.
• Laying down at odd times.
• Looking back at the flank.
• Stretching out as if to urinate.
• Males may partially drop the penis.
• Foals may lay on their back.
These symptoms show how uncomfortable the horse feels and will vary accordingly. A horse that’s not in too much pain will likely be depressed and off feed, with only slightly elevated pulse and respiratory rate. One that is very uncomfortable will be sweating, blowing, high pulse, pawing and trying to roll. With severe pain, the horse may also throw himself around violently.
How the horse is behaving tells you only the intensity of the pain. It doesn’t tell you the cause nor how serious or life-threatening the situation is. For example, a horse with an impaction can look every bit as distressed as one that has a problem needing surgical correction. Like people, horses also vary in their pain tolerance.
The pulse and respiratory rates are a bit more accurate indicators of the severity of the problem than behaviors indicating the severity of the pain. When pulse elevates above the low to mid 50s and the horse is also breathing very heavily, the index of suspicion for a serious problem goes up.
The color of the gums is important. If these stay a nice, normal pink it’s a good sign. The development of bright red, muddy or blue gums is a poor sign. Likewise, hydration gives clues. If the horse is rapidly becoming dehydrated, he’s losing large amounts of fluid into the intestinal tract or into the abdomen itself. This is another bad sign.
Since abdominal/colic pain could be caused by a life-threatening problem, it’s a medical emergency that warrants a call to your vet. You may be instructed to walk/exercise the horse, or administer a medication before the vet decides if the horse needs to be seen. Always notify your vet as soon as you see signs that indicate colic. Let the initial treatment plan and decision about when the horse needs to be examined be your vet’s call.
An integral part of the diagnostic process is the history. Before you call, write down the symptoms you’re observing as well the horse’s pulse, respiratory rate, temperature, hydration status, gum color. Also note manure production for the last 24 hours, and any changes in manure and appetite.
Think about recent management changes like new grain or hay, more or less pasture time, more or less exercise and be prepared to let the vet know when the horse was last dewormed, with what, and what the deworming schedule is. This initial information is vitally important.
Note how the horse changes over time. Use a colic flow sheet (see sidebar) to monitor the horse until the vet can get there.
Your vet’s exam will start with a physical, paying particular attention to intestinal sounds. A stomach tube will be used to check for a backup of fluid and/or gas in the upper intestinal tract. If this is found, the tube may be left in place and taped to the halter to provide constant decompression and give the horse some comfort.
The rectal exam is done to check for distended loops of bowel, displaced intestine or any other detectable abnormality. If your vet has the equipment, abdominal ultrasound may also be done for further information.
This barn exam may not be able to tell you what’s causing the pain. What it can do, though, is give you some idea of whether or not the horse should be referred to a hospital. Findings indicating a serious problem are:
• Fluid return off the stomach tube
• Gas/fluid distended intestinal loops on rectal
• Displaced intestinal loops on rectal
• Elevated pulse and respiratory rate
• Abnormal gum color
• Rapid dehydration.
While there’s no way to guarantee your horse won’t have problems with colic, several studies have identified factors that increase the risk:
• Recent change in hay or grain
• Change in level of exercise
• Parasite burden
• Weather changes.
If you suspect your horse is experiencing colic, call your vet immediately, and don’t administer any medicines or alternative therapies without discussing the situation with your vet.