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      Colic in Horses


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Why does a horse get colic?


The three main causes of colic (spasmodic, impaction, gassy) are generally related to feed and management. A rich diet fed infrequently or a sudden change to rich grass are the most common causes of gassy or spasmodic colic. Impactions are usually caused by horses standing in and eating their bedding. What is less predictable is the timing of more severe colic such as a twisted intestine (torsion or volvulus). These usually happen "out of the blue" and there is not usually a predisposing cause. It used to be thought that the horse rolling causes the intestine to twist but that is now known to be false. The twisted intestine causes the horse to roll !


Colic is any sort of abdominal pain in the horse, or what one might call stomach ache in humans. Colic is not always serious and it is not always connected with the intestine. It can also be caused by pain from other things within the abdomen such as the liver or the ovaries. When a horse is 'colicky' it will probably show signs such as pawing with its front legs, kicking up with its back legs, turning to look at its flanks, lying down, rolling, or sweating. Other things can also mimic colic and the most common are laminitis or tying up. In both these conditions the horse will also show a reluctance to move.


90% of colic is benign and reversible. That is, it is not caused by something life threatening and will settle down of its own accord. However about 10% of colic is caused by something more serious and needs urgent veterinary attention. Where it is more serious then it is important not to leave it untreated. The longer it goes untreated then the more serious it becomes. Therefore colic should always be treated as a veterinary emergency.


There are several reasons for intestinal pain. Abnormal motility of the intestine is probably the most common. This results in spasm of the muscles of the intestine or abnormal contractions which become painful. Such colic is often associated with a sudden change in diet or management although some horses are more prone to this type of colic.




Another cause of colic is the intestine becoming distended and stretched. If a horse eats a large volume of fibrous feed such as straw and then stands in his box all day then he may develop an impaction. This will stretch the wall of the intestine, causing colic.



The same sort of distension may also happen when a horse develops a great deal of gas in the intestines. This may also be related to standing in the box all day but is primarily caused by rapidly fermenting food such as a flush of new grass or an oversized hard feed. Most of the serious forms of colic are caused by the horse developing either a twist in the intestine or some other form of mal-positioning which causes the blood supply to be obstructed. Where this happens the affected piece of intestine will die off rapidly unless the intestine is untwisted or repositioned. This requires urgent surgery. The success of surgery depends mainly on how quickly the horse is sent to a hospital.


 How can I prevent my horse from getting colic ?

Horses should avoid eating over rich diets, standing in all day or eating their straw bed. In general horses eating plenty of grass (but not lush) or hay and getting lots of turn-out are less likely to get colic than those kept stabled and given hard feed. Unfortunately it is the most serious forms of colic that are the least preventable.

A final word of caution !

It is a myth that just because a horse is passing droppings the colic cannot be serious !




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