General Information about Colic

Colic is simply defined as abdominal pain. It is often a sign of a serious medical/intestinal problem. Abdominal problems causing colic are the most common reason for doing surgery and the most common cause of natural death in horses. Colic pain does not point to a specific cause and can have many sources. Often it is difficult to determine the specific cause, but the most common are changes in dietary regimens, parasites, dehydration, stress, gas, or “twist” (volvulus, displacement or torsion). The later requires surgery to correct and is often fatal even with surgery. Less common causes of colic include kidney infections, ovarian/uterine disorders, bladder stones, liver disease, ingestion of poisonous plants, viral infections,and bacterial intestinal infections that also cause diarrhea, like Salmonella. Veterinarians treat horses for colic according to the suspected cause and is based on historical reports from the owners, initial and follow-up examinations.

Most horses with uncomplicated colic respond to treatment within 2-4 hours. Horses not responding to initial treatment require further examination and treatment. This may require repeated visits to reevaluate and correctly treat your horse. You should consider your position regarding hospitalization/ surgery and the costs associated with such treatment. All horses hospitalized for colic do not need surgery. You can make up your mind about surgery as your horse’s situation progresses. However, it is important to decide now to what extent you want treatment to proceed if your horse’s condition deteriorates. If hospitalization becomes necessary, you should make plans now to transport your horse to the equine hospital where your horse will be treated. The sooner you make these plans, the more likely your horse will benefit from prompt treatment. Other considerations included whether or not your horse is covered with major medical insurance. Your insurance company will need to be kept in the loop regarding recommendations and decisions made between you and your vet, including surgical referral or euthanasia.

The equine surgical referral hospital we recommend for our area is the NCSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Raleigh, NC. However, if you live in another area or have a preference for different facility, inform the treating veterinarian of your preferences. There are very few facilities that are capable of performing major abdominal surgery on horses. Your regular veterinarian is often a general practitioner and is not likely to be trained as a board certified Equine surgeon. Horses with colic generally travel very well unless they are in a serious or grave condition and in some cases will not make it to the referral center for surgery. However, the ride tends to be soothing and sometimes transport is beneficial.

Most cases of colic resolve without surgery or prolonged treatment. Only about 10% of all colic cases require referral or surgery.

Important Treatment Points:

Routine therpay consists of admistration of pain medication and nasogastric intubation with mineral oil and water.
More involved treatment may include intravenous fluid therapy and constant observation and pain management.
In more specific, but less common reasons for colic, targeted therapy with anti-endotoxins, antispasmodics and antimicrobial treatments are warranted.
In cases of severe, unresolving pain, your vet may recommend surgical evaluation of your horse.
If colic is ongoing, but medically manageable: Check your horse for colic signs every 1-3 hours. If possible, check the heart rate (normal, 30-50 beats per minute) and listen for intestinal sounds.
Hand walk your horse if the horse wants to roll. Try to keep the horse standing and calm.
Provide fresh water for your horse at all times. Do not offer any hay or other feed until your horse passes manure and mineral oil, or directed to so by your vet. Wait at least 24 hrs before giving any feed and 48 hrs before giving hay or grazing.
After the colic has resolved and returning to feed: Graze your horse for 1-2 hours the first time and increase by 2 hours every day until back up to normal regimen. For the first 24 hours, feed ¼ of the regular diet in a wet-soupy mash and 1-2 tablespoons of Lite salt mixed in to an wet oatmeal consistency for the first 3 days then begin to increase amount of feed and slowly decrease the water content and discontinue the salt after 7 days.

The treating veterinarian will ask questions to determine the cause of the colic and discuss with you the following sources of colic in order to prevent future episodes:

Feeding program
Prevention of sand/gravel eating
Deworming program
Gastrointestinal evaluation