How to Treat Colic in Horses

How to Treat Colic in Horses [colic symptoms, prevention and treatment for your horse]

About five to ten percent of horses will suffer from colic during their lifetime. Colic is basically pain in your horse’s abdomen area and in severe cases can lead to death if not treated properly. Quick recovery from colic is accomplished by knowing the symptoms with an early diagnosis and then taking quick action. There are also preventive measures you should be aware of.

Please note that we are not medical professionals and do not suggest any particular medical treatment. The information provided in this article is meant to give you a basic understanding of colic signs, types of colic, colic symptoms, prevention, and treatment for horses. 

horses and colic
Horses and Colic

If you suspect your horse has colic, contact an equine veterinarian near you immediately for proper treatment.

What is Colic?

Colic is a condition that mostly affects a horse’s abdominal organs. Though common in human infants, it can also be seen in adult humans and other species of animals.

Horses with colic may display signs of intense pain and discomfort. 

Colic in Horses

According to the University of Minnesota, it is common for horses to get colic. Colic can appear suddenly in courses for a number of different reasons. 

Horse owners should observe their horses daily to ensure they are not experiencing any sudden symptoms of colic or any other disease.

Colic in Horses
Colic in Horses

Because all horses are different, colic can present itself in many different ways. 

It is important to become familiar with all of the symptoms of colic to help you better identify it in case it arises in your horse. 

Remember to always provide your horse with frequent preventative care to identify any potential health or care issues early on. 

Causes of Horse Colic

There are many potential causes of colic in horses. However, all of these causes are somehow related to the gastrointestinal tract. Many causes are somehow related to the horse’s feed.

Potential causes of colic due to the horse’s feed include poor nutritional quality, contamination, parasitic infection, or abrupt dietary change. 

Colic can also be caused by ingestion of inedible substances, long-term use of NSAIDs, or stress. 

Causes of Horse Colic
Causes of Horse Colic

In addition, poor dental care can lead to colic as horses with dental issues may be unable to chew and digest food properly.

Any suspected cause of colic in your horse should be addressed with an equine veterinarian as soon as possible. 

Types of Horse Colic

There are many common types of horse colic that you should be aware of as a horse owner. Remember to always contact your vet immediately if you suspect your horse may have colic.

Gas Colic

This is probably the most common type of colic that you will hear about it. As with a human, as gas builds up in the intestines it can cause pain and discomfort for your horse. 

The good news is that gas colic is usually not serious if treated quickly. If left untreated there have been cases where serious problems have occurred in horses from gas colic.

Twisted Gut Colic

Twisted gut colic is another form of colic that you may have heard of if you spend much time with horses. Just as the name implies, the horse’s intestines can actually get twisted up inside its body.

Twisted gut colic is also called displacement colic and is very serious for a horse. If not treated quickly it can cause death due to restriction of your horse’s blood supply.

The bad part about displacement colic is that it can be difficult to recognize the symptoms and it may require surgical intervention to cure.

Types of Horse Colic
Types of Horse Colic

Sand Colic

Since horses are always grazing and eating grass they often ingest sand. Too much sand in their abdominal cavity (stomach) can cause sand colic. 

It is important to not let your horse graze in areas of sandy soil.

Spasmodic Colic

Spasmodic colic is when the intestines of your horse actually start to spasm causing great pain. 

Usually, this form of colic, where the horse is suffering from contractions in its bowels is easily treated by your vet.

Impaction Colic

Impaction colic is basically constipation in your horse. Some type of foreign object (usually food) is causing your horse’s intestines to become blocked. 

Make sure your horse has ample access to water when you feed them.

Symptoms of Colic in Horses

Horses can display many different types of symptoms when they have colic. The clinical signs of colic can be described as either behavioral or physical. 

If you notice any of these common signs of colic in your horse, contact your veterinarian immediately. 

Symptoms of Colic in Horses
Symptoms of Colic in Horses

Behavioral Symptoms

Horses experiencing colic will often look, kick, or bite at their sides. This is in response to the abdominal pain they are experiencing due to colic. 

They may also roll or thrash on the ground in an attempt to eliminate the belly pain. Horses with colic may also stop eating and drinking. 

  • Kicking, Biting, or Looking at Their Side
  • Rolling and Lying Down on the Ground
  • Not Eating & Drinking
  • Displaying Painful Body Language
  • Increase in Heart Rate & Breathing
  • Abnormal Stool

If horses recognize that eating or drinking gives them abdominal pain, they may instinctually begin to avoid consuming food and water. 

Horses can quickly become dehydrated or malnourished if they are not drinking or eating properly, leading to a number of other health issues.

Lastly, horses may display painful body language when urinating or defecating due to colic. Look for signs of straining or effort during elimination if you suspect your horse has colic. 

Physical Symptoms

In addition to behavioral symptoms, horses may display physical symptoms of colic. A quick check of your horse’s vital signs can give a clue as to if they have colic. 

Sudden changes in your horse’s heart rate and respiratory rate can be signs of a problem.

These symptoms may be more noticeable than behavioral changes at times depending on how much severe pain your horse may be experiencing. 

Abnormal Elimination

Horses with colic may display signs of abnormal urination or defecation. If your horse shows signs of straining while eliminating, this may be a sign of pain or due to gastrointestinal inflammation. 

Abnormal passing of feces may also be a sign of colic. Gastrointestinal inflammation, impaction, or malnutrition may lead to smaller, drier stool or an absence of passing stool at all. 

On the other hand, horses with colic may also experience diarrhea or the passing of mucus-covered stool. 

Tracking your horse’s elimination habits can help you notice when your horse becomes sick before other symptoms arise. 

Abnormal Physical Exam

You or your vet may perform a physical examination on your horse to determine if they are healthy. 

If your physical exam finds your horse having tacky gums, a discolored mucus membrane, or an elevated heart rate (above 45 beats per minute), your horse may have colic.

In addition to checking gums and heart rate, you may also want to check your horse’s abdomen. 

A swollen, inflamed, or distended abdomen is another physical symptom of colic caused by an irritated gastrointestinal system. 

It is not unusual for your vet to do a belly tap (abdominocentesis) on your horse to see if they have colic. 

During a belly tap your vet will take a fluid sample from around the intestines. This test can help your vet determine if they have colic or not.

Contact a vet immediately if your horse shows these physical signs as they could be signs of colic or a similar illness. 

Identifying Colic in Horses

If you are worried your horse may have colic, make note of any behavioral or physical symptoms you see in your horse. 

This information will be important to provide your vet with so they can fully assess the situation. 

Keep in mind that horses may display a combination of behavioral and physical symptoms at any time. 

Treating Colic in Horses

Colic can be treated in a few different ways by your vet. Please remember that we are not veterinary professionals and do not recommend any specific treatment type. 

Treating Colic in Horses
Treating Colic in Horses

Any and all concerns should be discussed with your vet for accurate treatment for your horse. 

Because there are many different causes of colic, there are many different types of treatment for each of them. 

Make sure you get an accurate diagnosis from a vet before deciding on a course of action. 

Dietary Changes

If colic occurs often in your horse, it may be a sign of an improper diet. Hay and grass should be the majority of your horse’s diet, and grain should only be given when necessary. 

Food should also not be touching the ground to reduce the chances of your horse accidentally ingesting rocks or dirt. 

In addition to changing your horse’s food, make sure your horse has access to plenty of fresh water at all times.

Research shows that horses with access to more water than other horses are less likely to develop colic. 

By preventing dehydration in your horse you also ensure proper food digestion and a healthier gut in your horse. 

Medication for Infections

Colic can be caused by parasitic infections in your horse. In fact, most severe cases of colic are caused by infections in your horse by different types of worms and nematodes. 

Your vet can use a stool sample to determine if your horse has an infection and what type(s) of organisms may be infecting his gut. 

Foals and adult horses should be kept on a regular deworming schedule to prevent severe parasitic infections. 

Most horses are dewormed with different medications at least once a year. 

If your horse already has a significant infection, your vet can select the best deworming medication possible for the type of organism found in your horse’s stool sample. 

Treatment for Anxiety

Horses that experience chronic anxiety may also show signs of colic. In particular, horses with anxiety are prone to intestinal impaction. 

You may notice your horse no longer passing manure or that his manure now looks blockier and more compact than before. 

Different types of anxiety that may affect your horse include separation anxiety, performance anxiety, change anxiety, and boredom. 

By keeping your horse in an active, safe, and constant environment, you decrease the chances of him developing these different types of anxiety. 

Clinical anxiety may be able to be treated by an equine veterinarian with certain types of anti-anxiety supplements.

Treatment for Impaction

Impaction can be a very serious issue in horses. If a horse becomes fully impacted, he will be unable to pass manure which can cause significant pain and can eventually lead to death. 

Keeping track of your horse’s stool habits is especially important if you suspect any potential illness in your horse. 

Supplements and surgery are the two primary types of treatment for intestinal impaction. Talk to your vet about the best options for your horse. 

Do not attempt these methods without direct supervision and assistance from a veterinarian.

Supplemental Treatment for Impaction

In mild cases of intestinal impaction, impaction can be treated with supplements that aid in lubrication and intestinal contraction. 

Vegetable or mineral oil is commonly used by vets to lubricate your horse’s GI tract via a nasogastric tube. 

Analgesics and IV fluids are also important to rehydrate your horse and assist with lubrication in the digestive tract

Horses can also be given enemas under some circumstances. Your horse may receive painkillers to help with any pain caused by both the impaction and the treatment method performed.

Surgical Treatment for Impaction

In more severe cases of impaction, surgery may be necessary. If your horse is entirely unable to pass stool, a vet may need to surgically remove the blockage from your horse’s intestines.

This method is highly invasive and is typically a last resort if supplemental treatments are unsuccessful.

Post-surgical care for your horse will likely include painkillers and rest. Your vet will also give you recovery signs to look for in the coming weeks of your horse’s recovery.

As always, keep in mind that this article is for educational purposes only and you will need to contact a reputable equine veterinarian to discuss any concerns you have about your horse. 

Finding a Horse Vet Near You

Proper veterinary horse care can be difficult to find depending on the area in which you live. Areas that don’t have many horses may suffer from a lack of experienced vets.

Here are some methods to find a horse vet near you.

  • Ask other horse owners who they use
  • Contact local farriers (people who trim horses’ hooves)
  • Visit or call horse boarding facilities and ask them
  • Search for local horse trainers or people who give horse riding lessons
  • Call veterinary clinics, schools, or hospitals and ask for someone experienced in horses
  • Your local zoo may have some guidance for you
  • Contact Local farm owners 
  • Contact the American Association of Equine Practitioners at (859)233-0147

How to Prevent a Horse From Getting Colic

How to Prevent a Horse From Getting Colic
How to Prevent a Horse From Getting Colic

There are some simple steps you can do to help alleviate the chances of your horse getting colic.

  • Avoid feeding your horse too much. Especially grains
  • Half of your horse’s feed should be hay or grass from grazing
  • Have a regular feeding schedule
  • Rotate the pastures you let your horse graze in if possible
  • Don’t let your horse graze in areas that are too sandy
  • Give your horse plenty of exercise and let them roam about
  • Make sure your horse has plenty of fresh clean water
  • Have your vet create a routine worming program to keep them worm free
  • Have regular checkups on your horse’s teeth and have them filed (floating) if needed
  • Keep a close eye on your horse for signs of colic

Related Horse Colic Questions

Are Older Horses More Susceptible to Colic?

Yes, older horses are known to be more susceptible to getting colic. They often have a harder time recovering from colic than a younger horse would.

What Percentage of Horses Get Colic?

It is estimated that five to ten percent of horses will get some form of colic over their lifetime.

How Many Different Horse Breeds Are There?

Horses are one of the most diverse types of animals. There are over 200 breeds of horses in the world!

Are Certain Horse Breeds More Prone to Getting Colic?

Not really. Any horse can get colic. However, horses that are confined in small spaces such as a horse stall are more likely to get colic. Diet and other factors can play a role as well. 

What Other Medical Conditions are Common in Horses?

Other diseases that commonly affect horses include equine influenza, equine herpesvirus, and equine encephalomyelitis (“sleeping sickness”). 

Luckily, there are vaccines available for foals and adult horses to prevent illness and even death from these diseases. 

How Much Food Can a Horse Eat in a Single Day?

On average, horses eat between 15 and 20 pounds of hay in a single day! In addition to hay, they may also eat wild grasses and any supplemental grain necessary for their diet.

Can Eating too Much Food Cause a Horse to Get Colic?

Yes, eating too much food can cause a horse to get colic and other health issues. 

An old saying amongst horse people is that a horse will literally eat itself to death. That they don’t know when to stop eating. So don’t let your horse eat too much!

How Much Does a Routine Horse Vet Visit Cost?

Depending on the area and what vet you choose you can expect to pay around $200 for a visit to check on your horse.

Other Fun Horse Questions

How is a Horses Height Measured?

Horses are measured in an ancient form of measurement called a hand. 

Because there were no standard measurement tools in ancient times, societies would measure horse height by how many hands they could stack from the ground to the top of the horse’s shoulders. 

A hand is estimated to be about four inches tall. 

What is the Purpose of Horseshoes?

Horseshoes are designed to protect the hooves of domesticated horses. Horseshoes are needed to protect horses’ feet when walking on gravel, concrete, and carrying heavy loads. 

Wild horses do not need horseshoes as their hooves get worn down naturally and slowly with long-distance travel. 

How Long do Horses Live?

With proper care, horses can live between 25 and 30 years but can often live longer than that. A horse’s 30s are equivalent to a human’s 90s. Having a horse is a long-term commitment. 

How Fast Can a Horse Run?

The average speed of a galloping horse is about 27 miles per hour. The fastest recorded speed for a horse was approximately 55 miles per hour! 

Conclusion

Any horse can get colic at any point in time. Though it can be difficult to prevent due to the nature of the infection, most horses are able to recover with quick and proper treatment. 

If you notice any of the above symptoms in your horse, be sure to contact your equine vet to keep your horse happy and healthy.

Luckily, colic in horses can be easily treated in most cases by your veterinarian.

How to Treat Colic in Horses

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