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Addressing Horse Colic

By Jeffrey Rolo

Horse colic is a condition most horse owners dread, and for very good reason. At best, colic can cause mild discomfort; at worst it can cause death. Before going over the symptoms and healing measures it's important to cover what colic actually is.

Some folks mistakenly believe horse colic is a disease or illness, but it really isn't either. Colic is a condition that causes pain in the horse's abdomen, whether due to a light problem such as gas or a severe problem such as a twisted intestine. The common types of horse colic in order of most severe to least are:

bulletDisplacement and/or torsion When an intestine is placed in an unnatural position it is displaced, whereas torsion occurs when the intestine twists. These two very similar conditions have one thing in common: they are highly fatal if immediate surgical attention is not provided.
bulletGastric rupture A horse cannot vomit excess food as humans can, so when the stomach expands due to severe overeating it can rupture. Such a rupture is fatal.
bulletEnteritis and/or colitis The small or large intestines swell due to an inflammation, creating discomfort. A professional should address these conditions as soon as possible.
bulletImpaction A partial or full blockage occurs within the intestines. Generally this is not a problem as long as appropriate medical attention is provided.
bulletSpasmodic Spasmodic colic is a condition where the intestines contract in an abnormally quick and strong manner, usually caused by parasites. It's uncomfortable, but as long as it is addressed properly it's generally cleared up easily.
bulletGas The horse has too much gas, which causes the intestines to expand a bit, causing discomfort to the horse. This is rarely a problem in itself.

It's important to treat all cases of colic as if they were the fatal types, since often the fatal types show the same symptoms as the minor conditions. Symptoms of colic are:

bulletThe horse lies down and gets back up repeatedly.
bulletThe horse bends his head and neck towards his abdomen, sometimes biting at his gut.
bulletThe horse paws the ground.
bulletThe horse attempts to kick his abdominal area.
bulletThe horse stretches, as if assuming an urination position.
bulletThe horse rolls around on the ground.
bulletA lack of normal manure quantities is passed.
bulletThe horse curls his upper lip, sweats profusely or breathes rapidly.

If you notice your horse is showing signs of colic it's important to immediately remove all food and water from your horse's location and place a call to your veterinarian. It can be difficult, if not impossible, to tell the difference between lesser and fatal forms of colic, so all forms should be addressed with the utmost importance.

Be prepared to tell your vet about any abnormalities you may have detected with your horse recently, such as changes in appetite and/or the passage of manure. If your horse was recently subjected to a change in atmosphere or introduced to a new feed or exercise program make sure you note that too.

If your horse is behaving violently these next steps may not be possible, but sometimes the veterinarian will ask you if you were able to check the horse's temperature, pulse and capillary refill time (press your fingers on the horse's gum, release and count the seconds until the gum returns to its normal color). Don't worry if you cannot take these tests before the vet arrives; chances are he will be performing them too.

Horses may lie quietly or roll around when they are in the midst of a colic, and your reaction will differ based on which your horse does. If your horse is resting fairly quietly, it's safe to allow him to lie down while you wait for the veterinarian to arrive. Make sure your horse doesn't try to roll on the floor; if he does start rolling try to make him stand up and walk him slowly. The same holds true if your horse repeatedly lies down and stands up try to make him walk slowly instead. Don't overexert your horse in either case since the goal is to prevent him from rolling, not stress him even further.

Once your vet arrives he will be able to evaluate the situation and try to determine both the form of colic as well as the appropriate steps to take to resolve the condition.

Read Preventing Horse Colic to learn the preventative measures you can take to combat colic.

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