Colic in Horses

Vet Examining Horse With StethescopeAlthough horses have historically been known as working livestock, today they are often referred to as companion animals. More and more people are seeking to own pet horses, making large animal veterinary medicine even more important. With a growing horse industry, first-time horse owners should be aware and educated about one of the most common illnesses horses are susceptible to: colic.

“Colic in the horse refers to a pain originating from within the abdominal cavity. Most often, colic is associated with the gastrointestinal tract; however, it can also arise from other intra-abdominal organs like the kidney, liver, and uterus,” said Dr. Noah Cohen, professor at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences. “Horses that experience colic will show varying degrees of pain with varying clinical signs. These can include turning to stare at the flank region, pawing at the ground, restlessness (such as getting up and down), rolling, sweating, having a high heart and respiratory rate, and flared nostrils,” Cohen continued.

So what causes colic and why is it so common in horses? According to Cohen, there are many potential causes of the illness. For example, one cause is a volvulus of the small intestine, where the intestine is obstructed by twisted on itself. “Often the cause(s) of a volvulus (or any other displacement or twisting of the gastrointestinal tract) may be impossible to define, or may be attributable to many factors such as diet, level of exercise, dehydration from sweat losses or inadequate water intake, and so on,” Cohen explained. Other common causes of colic include an abrupt change in feed, high grain or low forage diets, parasite infestation, lack of water (which can lead to impaction colic) and sand ingestion (choose an alternative flooring for your stalls, like concrete, to prevent your horse from ingesting sand).

Another cause of the potentially deadly illness could be linked to the time of the year. Weather conditions have been associated with colic cases; however, there is not enough data to indicate which specific weather patterns stimulate the illness. “When the ambient temperature and humidity are high, there seem to be more cases of colic. These cases are often colon impactions with food material; many of us attribute these to dehydration from increased sweat losses,” said Cohen. “In cold weather horses will consume more warm water than cold water. Because water sources for horses are generally cold from the ambient temperature, we also seem to see cases of colic attributed to inadequate water consumption during the cold weather.”

Although it may sound like almost anything can cause your horse to colic, Cohen explains that every horse reacts differently to situations that could potentially stimulate the illness. “One way to think about the multiple causes of colic is to think of a traffic accident,” he said. “Rainy roads can contribute to an increased risk of accidents occurring, but this doesn’t mean that driving on a rainy road will always cause an accident…The same is true for colic. Not every horse that has a recent change in diet will colic…and not every horse that goes from being housed at pasture to a stall (or vice versa) will experience colic.”

Luckily for first-time horse owners, there are plenty of preventative measures against colic that can help stop the painful disease in its tracks. Some of these healthy habits include feeding your horse regularly (even on the weekends), making slow changes in diet instead of sudden changes, providing plenty of water and exercise, providing a balanced diet fed in feed troughs (to prevent sand ingestion), and regularly deworming. If you think your horse may be experiencing colic, Cohen recommends calling the veterinarian and withholding all feed, but not water. Walking the horse may also keep the animal calm and will prevent injury from rolling or pawing at the ground. Knowing how to measure a horse’s rectal temperature, heart rate and respiratory rate will also come in handy. If you are trained to perform these tasks, Cohen suggests recording this information and sharing it with the veterinarian.

Before owning your first horse, make sure to know the causes and symptoms of colic. Although early detection is important in treating the disease, prevention is truly the key to maintaining your horse’s health.

Pet Talk is a service of the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University. Stories can be viewed on the Web at vetmed.tamu.edu/pet-talk. Suggestions for future topics may be directed to editor@cvm.tamu.edu .