Equine colic

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Equine colic

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The term colic is applied loosely to almost
all diseases of the organs of the abdomen, that are
accompanied by pain. It is one of the most dangerous and
costly equine medical problems and it’s the number one
killer of horses. Equine Colic can originate from the
stomach, the small intestine or the large intestine
(colon). Horses get a lot of Colic but mostly it is not
serious and individuals recover quickly.

horse with colic

This page shows the sections of the
digestive system.

Signs of

The signs of colic will vary according to the severity of
the particular conditions. Very few horses exhibit all the
signs at one time.

• Pawing the ground, sometimes violently

• Restlessness

• Lack of appetite

• Lying down and getting up frequently

• Kicking at the abdomen

• Getting up and lying down repeatedly

• Looking around at the belly

• Stamping the hind feet

• Standing frequently as if to urinate

• Increased respiration rate

• Lying on the back

• Sweating, sometimes profusely

• Muscle tremors

• Repeatedly curling the upper lip

In the event that a horse colics, and is rolling violently,
be very cautious for your own safety. A violently colicky
horse will have no regard for anyone.

Some causes
of colic

• Lack of water• Gorging on
food (e.g. unsoaked sugar beet) 
• Gas build up e.g.
from eating grass cuttings.
• Worm damage 

• Too much water and/or food after exercise
• Sudden
diet change or irregular feeding
• Stress
• Twisted guts
from gas build up and subsequent rolling
• Constipation
caused by e.g. worms, bad teeth, poor feeding, sand build
up etc.
• Fatty growths that strangulate intestines.

Types of

Pelvic flexure impaction

This is caused by an impaction of food material at a part
of the large bowel known as the pelvic flexure of the left
colon where the intestine takes a
180 degree turn and narrows. Impaction generally
responds well to medical treatment, but more severe
cases may not recover without surgery. If left
untreated, severe impaction colic can be fatal. The
most common cause is when the horse is on box rest
and/or consumes large volumes of straw, or the horse
has dental disease and is unable to masticate
properly. This condition could be diagnosed on rectal
examination by a veterinarian.

Spasmodic colic

Spasmodic colic is the result of
increased peristaltic contractions in the horse’s
gastrointestinal tract. It can be the result of a mild
gas buildup within the horse’s digestive tract. The
signs of colic are generally mild and respond well to
spasmolytic and analgesic medication.

Ileal impaction

The ileum is the last part of the small
intestine that ends in the cecum. Ileal impaction can
be caused by obstruction of ingesta. other causes can
be obstruction by ascarids (Parascaris equorum) or
tapeworm (Anaplocephala Perfoliata)
as mentioned below.

Sand impaction

This is most likely to occur in horses that graze sandy or
heavily grazed pastures. The ingested sand acumulates in
the pelvic flexure and right dorsal colon of the large
intestines. As the sand irritates the lining of the bowel
it can cause diarrhoea. The weight and abrasion of the sand
causes the bowel wall to become inflammed and can cause
peritonitis. Medical treatment of the problem is with
laxatives such as liquid paraffin and psyllium husk. Some
cases may need surgery. Horses with sand impaction are
predisposed to Salmonella infection.


Enteroliths in horses often form
around a piece of ingested foreign material. When they
move from their original site they can obstruct the
intestine. Enteroliths are not a common cause of colic
but it usually requires surgery.

Colic caused by parasites:
Large Roundworms

Occasionally there can be an obstruction by large numbers
of roundworms. This is most commonly seen in young horses
as a result of a very heavy infestation of Parascarus
equorum that can subsequently cause a blockage and rupture
of the small intestine. Deworming heavily infected horses
may cause dead worms to puncture the intestinal wall and
cause a fatal peritonitis. A blockage of the small
intestines by worms may well require colic surgery. A more
conservative approach can be to give a horse a laxative (eg
liquid paraffin) prior to deworming if a heavy worm
infestation is suspected. It is often the result of a poor
deworming program. Horses develop immunity to parascaris
between 6 months age and one year and so this condition is
rare in adult horses.

Colic caused by parasites:

Tapeworms at the junction of the cecum have been implicated
in causing colic.

Colic caused by parasites:

Acute diarrhoea can be caused by
cyathostomes or “small Stronglus type” worms that are
encysted as larvae in the bowel wall, particularly if
large numbers emerge simultaneously. The disease most
fequently occurs in winter time. Pathological changes
of the bowel reveal a typical “pepper and salt” colour
of the large intestines. Animals suffering from
cyathostominosis usually have a poor deworming

Left dorsal

Left dorsal displacement is a form of colic where the left
dorsal colon becomes trapped on the outside of the spleen
and against the nephrosplenic ligament. It may necessitate
surgery although often it can be treated with exercise
and/or epinephrine. This condition can be diagnosed on
rectal examination by a veterinarian.

Right dorsal

Right dorsal displacement is another displacement of part
of the large bowel. Although signs of colic may not be very
severe, surgery is usually the only available treatment.


Various parts of the horse’s gastrointestinal tract may
twist upon themselves. It is most likely to be either small
intestine or part of the colon. Occlusion of the blood
supply means that it is a painful condition causing rapid
deterioration and requiring emergency surgery.


Intussusception is a form of colic
in which a piece of intestine “telescopes” within a
portion of itself. It most commonly happens in the
small intestine of young horses and requires urgent

Epiploic foramen

On rare occasions, a piece of small intestine can become
trapped through the epiploic foramen. The blood supply
to this piece of intestine is immediately occluded.
The intestine becomes trapped and surgery is the only
available treatment.

Other causes that may show
clinical symptoms of colic

Stricly spoken colic refers only to signs originating from
the gastrointestinal tract of the horse. Signs of colic may
be caused by problems other than the GI-tract e.g. problems
in the kidneys, ovaries, spleen, testicular torsion,
pleuritis, pleuropneumonia etc.

What to

Stay calm yourself and keep the horse in a stable with
plenty of bedding. 
If the horse is lying down do not
disturb it but remove things in the stable which it might
damage itself on if it starts to roll. 
A little
walking outside may prevent a horse from rolling.
If a
horse does start rolling violently it may be best to move
it to a more open area such as a safe field without ditches
and fences.

Don’t offer food and don’t give colic drenches: they might
go down the wrong way.

A horse showing severe signs of colic should be seen by a
veterinarian immediately. If the signs of pain are acute
and the cause of the distention is not removed, death often
occurs within 12 to 48 hours. So rapid diagnosis and
treatment are vital!

Preventing Horse Colic:

• Ensure a good worming program

• Use only good quality food

• Do not make a horse work directly after feeding

To be continued…