Colic in Horses
Colin EasomSeptember 5, 2018
Colic in Horses
Colic in horses can occur for various reasons. It could be diet, stress, travel, exercise, or even travel induced. For the condition to be considered chronic, a horse must have multiple colic episodes over a period of months to one year. Not all colic cases are the same. Some may present as a gastric torsion, while others may appear to be gas or basic belly pain. In this paper I will explain symptoms and treatments of different types of colic.
Gastric torsion is the most difficult form of colic to treat. It will generally lead to surgery or euthanasia. Surgery for this form of colic is complicated and may not be successful if too much time has passed. Unfortunately, torsion colic can cause tissue death at a rapid pace. The torsion cuts off blood supply to the tissue where the rotation has occurred. This can be at the intestine or even the colon.
During surgery the veterinarian will work to correct the rotation. If it is intestinal, the section of bowel may be removed if it is extreme. There are times where this can be corrected manually without removal of the section. Intestinal torsions are easier to repair than a torsion of the large colon. Large colon torsion can easily lead to death. The colon can wrap around the spleen causing it to fill with blood and then trap the blood within the spleen, causing death. The survival rate for a torsion colic is around 50%. This includes surgical and non-surgical treatments.
Gas related colic present as severe discomfort and pain. Horses will usually roll frequently to try and ease the pain from the pressure of the gas. An owner would notice this as well as pawing at the ground or even kicking at the stomach. This can also cause displacement of the bowels or large colon due to the pressure. Gas colic can happen for a few reasons, the main one being diet. If the horse has eaten moldy grain or hay, this can cause a buildup in gas, leading to colic.
Treatment for gas colic can be as simple as a nasogastric tube inserted down to the stomach to release the pressure. As horses are not able to vomit, this is usually the first line of treatment. If the gas is in the bowel, trocarization may be performed. Trocarization is generally used in severe cases of gas colic of the intestine. According to Merck, this process includes a large catheter being placed into the bowel. A tube is attached to the catheter and the end is placed in water as to monitor the progress of the gas release. Once the gas is released from the body, an antibiotic will be inserted to help prevent infection of the trocar site and the bowel. Horses must be kept under observation for at least 48 hours after the procedure to watch for infection or abscess.
Impaction induced colic can be caused by multiple things. Fecal blockages, parasites, foreign objects, and even the intestine backing into itself are common impactions in horses. A fecal blockage may be caused by dehydration. The intestinal walls may become too dry to pass fecal material out of the body. This can also be caused by constipation in the horse due to poor diet. Feeding the wrong food for your horse can cause poor digestion and lead to impactions.
Parasites are not as common in an impaction colic. Most horses are kept on a normal worming schedule which would help to prevent this. Generally, horses’ contract round worms. These worms can come from a food source. If left untreated can lead to an impaction of the bowel. If a horse is heavily infested with round worms and de-worming medication is given, this can create a pain-based colic. If parasitic infestations are ongoing, horses should be moved off pasture grass and be placed on a strictly adhered de-worming schedule. Pastures may need to be treated for contamination.
Impaction colic can be very trying on veterinarians. Before any treatments begin, the veterinarian will likely ultrasound the horse’s belly and gut to discover where the problem is located. This is usually done while the horse is standing. If the horse is calm and not thrashing a mild sedative is given as to relax the animal. Ultrasounding the sensitive stomach of a horse can be a bit startling to them, as the alcohol that is sprayed onto the body is quite cold. If the horse is in extreme pain, it will be sedated for the safety of the staff and the animal itself.
Merck states that gastric ulcers can cause bouts of colic in horses and foals. The ulcers can be caused by stress or travel, usually in performance horses. Stress due to travel and exercise can increase the severity of the colic symptoms. Painful belly and general discomfort are the normal presentation of the ulcer related colic. Foals tend to get ulcers early in life due to their stomach lining not being at full thickness at the time of birth. Generally, the first few days of life is when owners may notice this.
Treatment for this is basic medications consisting of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs for pain, antacids to help with the pH of the stomach if it is too high, and possibly a stomach coating agent to help heal the ulcers.
Stress and travel related colic is likely caused by sudden diet change while on the road. Some horses don’t eat or drink well when they travel, increasing their risks of colic.
Treatment for these instances of colic can vary wildly. The horse may have severe diarrhea as well as abdominal pain. Another horse may be blocked up due to dehydration from sweating in the trailer on the way to their destination. These two examples may require fluid therapy. While others may become colic due to gas build up. Requiring a nasogastric tube or trocar. There is no real known cause for colic in general. It appears to happen at random times.
Enteritis can present as painful diarrhea. This is the swelling of the intestine due to possibly moldy feed, a bacterial infection, or too much food. Enteritis can be difficult to diagnose. It often presents as another form of colic. Veterinarians can struggle to find the cause and the type of colic due to this fact.
Treatment for enteritis can include antibiotics, fluid therapy, and regular nasogastric tubing to help alleviate the buildup of reflux in the stomach. These treatments are all multi day treatments. The horse will need to be monitored for the first 48 to 72 hours after diagnosis.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) is described by Succeed Veterinary Center as ” a group of diseases caused by abnormal infiltration of the intestinal wall by inflammatory cells”. This can cause swelling in both intestinal tracts. This usually occurs in young horses under the age of five and can have colic symptoms. Those include diarrhea, and acute weight loss. The outlook of this condition is relatively poor as most treatments do not work.
Treatments for IBD are very limited. They include dietary changes and occasionally the use of corticosteroids. According to Merck, dietary changes are recommended to be fed multiple small meals a day that are always high in energy and access to clean water.
Age and fitness levels can play a role in how likely a horse is to colic. Older horses are more likely to colic than a horse between five and 15 years of age. Horses who don’t have a fitness routine, who may be on stall rest or pasture rest are more likely to colic than the performance horse or horse who has a fitness routine. Older horses are less likely to survive a bout of colic than their younger barn mates. It is similar to humans and obesity or heart disease. The less movement we perform daily, the more likely we are to gain weight. The older we get, the more prone we are to things like heart disease.
In conclusion, colic can present in many different forms at any given time. Some forms are easily treated, while others have a high mortality rate. Age of the horses and activity level also play a role. Keeping horses active and properly fed can help keep colic at bay. There is no magic bullet to keep it from happening all together.
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