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Colic: What Is It?

By: Ann Compton and Dr. Andrew Hoffman

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It's every horse-keeper's nightmare: You walk into the barn a few hours after feeding to do a night check. Instead of the nicker that usually greets you, your horse is pacing and stamping in his stall. You can tell he's uncomfortable, and your immediate fear is colic. What do you do? The most important thing is not to panic. Here are some things you should know to get a plan set up so you aren't at a loss if your horse becomes ill:

What Is Colic?

Colic is the most common veterinary equine emergency. It's a general term for pain arising anywhere in the abdomen. Types of colic include gas or "spasmodic" colic, obstructive colic (impactions, displacements or twists), overeating colic, and more rarely, worm-related colics. Organs in the abdomen, other than the stomach and intestines, also cause pain on rare occasions.

The severity of colic can range from simple gas and flatulence, to impaction of a segment of the large colon requiring only treatment with oil and Banamine®, to "rock hard" impactions requiring intense fluid therapy. Although most horses respond after the first veterinary visit, some will rapidly deteriorate. Here are several anatomical reasons as to why colic strikes equines:

  • Horses cannot relieve pressure from their stomach (e.g. by vomiting) like other species, so the stomach in horses can distend quite rapidly requiring decompression with a tube.

  • There are several anatomical "hairpin turns" and narrowings in the horse's intestine that are sites for impactions.

  • Food materials are mixed in the intestine by complex backward movements, which by squeezing the material in both directions, tends to further the impaction.

  • The blood supply of the intestine, which runs along the edge of the intestine, is long and narrow, and highly vulnerable to twists and kinks. A kinked vessel becomes an emergency, because the part of bowel served by this vessel will degenerate and die without the rich supply of oxygen.

  • Horses are sensitive to dietary changes because of the complex balance of bacterial flora in their intestines. Any feed change, including supplements, can disturb this mix, and it can take a few days to straighten it out.

    How Do You Know Your Horse Has Colic?

    Typical signs of early colic include restlessness and loss of appetite, says Dr. Mark Baus of Fairfield Equine Associates in Connecticut. "One sign that people sometimes overlook is a horse that isn't interested in his food. Often, that's the first indicator that something is wrong, especially if the horse doesn't have a fever."

    Lying down at unusual times for the horse is another.

    More active or advanced forms of colic may include pawing, looking at his sides, rolling or lifting his upper lip, kicking the belly, stretching, jerky switching of the tail, and frequent changes of position.

    While each of these may be a normal activity individually, when they occur simultaneously, or when they are unusual for your horse, colic should be suspected. These signs often will erupt in "spasms," interspersed with quiet times. In severe cases, horses will get intensely restless, throw themselves down, roll, paw vigorously, assume unnatural positions, stretch for long periods, strain and even groan.

    What To Do If You Think Your Horse Has Colic

  • Call your veterinarian immediately. Don't wait to see whether the horse improves. A horse quickly can progress from a simple to a severe colic. While waiting for the veterinarian, make a note of when the horse last ate and when the symptoms began. Take his temperature, pulse and respiration.

  • If you can't reach your vet quickly, Dr. Baus suggests walking the horse for brief periods – about five minutes – then bringing him out to see if he will graze and to test his appetite. But don't let him actually graze. If the horse seems quiet, he can be returned to his stall. He also can be allowed to lie down, says Dr. Baus, as long as he is lying quietly and not rolling.

  • Do not administer medication before talking with your veterinarian.

  • Remove all feed, hay and any edible bedding, such as straw, from his stall.

  • Allow him free access to water.

  • If there is manure in the stall try to determine if it is fresh and if it seems to be the usual amount and consistency for the horse. This is helpful information for your veterinarian.

  • Check the stall for recent signs of rolling or pawing.

  • If the horse attempts to roll, get him up and walk him if you can do so safely. It helps to have another person assist you. Be cautious, a horse in extreme pain isn't picky about where he plants his hooves.

    A horse with colic can appear passive or extremely restless, stoic or distressful, easy to handle or outright dangerous. The difference is the level of pain and how the horse handles it.

    Your early recognition of the signs can be lifesaving. When in doubt, call your veterinarian. They will be glad that you took the initiative and didn't wait.

    For more information on colic, please see the article Colic - How You Deal with It.

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