Important Warning Signs That Indicate Your Horse is Having a Life-Threatening Colic Episode


Although it’s often thought of as a condition on its own, “Colic” is actually blanket term that covers several different types of gastrointestinal upset in equines. While colic is sometimes just a small issue (comparable to “tummy trouble” or indigestion in humans), there are times when colic is a sign of a serious, life-threatening medical issue. Read on for more information on this common threat to your horse’s health!

Causes of Colic

All horses can get colic, regardless of their breed, lineage, age, or current health status. It’s not a disease that you can vaccinate against, nor are there any medications that you can give preemptively to prevent the condition from occurring. Thus, the best thing you can do for your horse is to catch any episodes of colic early. Quick treatment can, quite literally, be a lifesaver!

When a horse has colic, there are usually four common causes, and they all have something to do with the digestive tract:

• A buildup of gas that the horse has difficultly passing.
• Some kind of blockage in the horse’s stomach or intestines.
• Parasites, such as strongyles and roundworms.
• The ingestion of antibiotics, which can disrupt the beneficial bacteria in the horse’s gut.

Sometimes, whatever ails poor Buttercup can be relieved with a single dose of medication. In other cases, though, more drastic medical treatment (including surgery) might be needed.

Red Flags

Here are the most common signs of colic in horses:

• Pawing at the ground.
• Acting anxious or depressed.
• Constipation.
• Little or no appetite.
• Rolling around on the ground or lying down. The horse may also stand up, lie down, and then stand up again repeatedly.
• Sweating.
• Racing heartbeat.
• Visible bloating in the stomach region.
• Straining to urinate.
• Unusual noises originating from the gut.
• Unusually dark mucus membranes.
• Turning his head towards his flank.
• Listlessness or excessive leaning on walls or fences.

Now, a horse who exhibits any of these symptoms does not necessarily have colic; the issue could be something else entirely. However, these behaviors are definitely not something to regard as “no big deal”!

How to Respond

If you think that Buck is having an episode of colic, call an equine vet immediately. It’s very difficult to tell, just by looking at a horse, whether or not the problem has an easy fix (e.g., he just needs to be walked around the pasture until he finally defecates/farts) or requires aggressive treatment. Only a licensed veterinarian—one with the proper tools, knowledge, and experience with sick horses—can make that call.

Conventional wisdom dictates that, when a horse has colic, a person should gently walk with her until the vet arrives; this is to prevent the horse from rolling (potentially endangering herself and the people/horses around her), encourage her digestion to start working normally again, and keep her calm. However, there’s some debate among experts as to how helpful walking actually is, so ask your vet for their recommendation before you insist that Maggie gets up off the floor of her stall. Do not give your horse any medicine before the vet arrives; this can mask her symptoms and make her illness harder to diagnose!

Once the vet arrives, they’ll give your horse a look-over; the goal is to find out what is causing the colic and how the condition can be relieved. A nasogastric tube (that is, a tube that’s inserted into the stomach by way of the nose) is often utilized to release trapped gas or administer fluids or medication, and a rectal exam can reveal evidence of the colon being blocked, distended, or twisted.

Once the vet has an idea of what, exactly, is wrong with Comet, they’ll also come up with a course of treatment. Minor cases can sometimes be resolved by giving the horse laxatives and mineral oil; if a blockage is to blame, then this can help him to “pass” the obstruction. Major cases, on the other hand—especially ones that involve twisted or looped entrails, severe inflammation of the GI tract, or even a ruptured stomach—will usually require surgical intervention.

Be Proactive

Again, there’s nothing that a horse owner can do to “guarantee” that their four-legged friend will never get colic. There are, however, some things that you can do to reduce your horse’s risk. For example:

Avoid any sudden changes in feeding. Dogs and cats often experience stomach problems when their diet is altered abruptly, and in this regard, horses are no different. If you need to change the type of feed you’re giving your horse or the amount of food she’s getting, do it as slowly and gradually as possible. On a related note…
Mind your horse’s diet. Colic is more likely to occur in horses that eat high-grain, low-forage diets and are allowed to ingest dirt, clay, or sand. It can also be a result of eating moldy feed or food tainted with parasites. While you don’t necessarily need to monitor every gram of material that goes into your horse’s mouth, make sure that you’re giving them high-quality, nutritious food, and see to it that they always have access to fresh, clean water.
Keep his “smile” healthy. Broken, missing, or abscessed teeth can make it difficult or painful for a horse to chew, and large amounts of improperly chewed food can wreak havoc on their digestion. Examine your horse’s mouth for dental issues from time to time, and speak to your vet about having his teeth floated regularly.

One more thing: it’s critical that you know what constitutes “normal” behavior for your horse. No two creatures are exactly alike in mannerisms and personality, and when you’re aware of how Brownie usually acts, it’ll be much easier to spot when something’s wrong. As prey animals, horses often try their best to hide any signs of illness; this is a survival adaptation to prevent predators from “picking them off.”

But colic is much easier to treat when it’s caught early, so if you notice any odd behavior (especially one of the symptoms we discussed earlier), don’t just brush it off.

Photo courtesy of R0Ng on Flickr

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