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    Colic in Horses - Symptoms, Types & Treatments

    Although it only affects a small percentage (roughly 5% to 10% reported annually) of the population, colic in horses can be dangerous and possibly fatal if you’re not careful or unsure what to look for.

    Even with horse insurance, an untreated colic could set you back significantly.

    More importantly, knowing about these issues can help you find the best pet insurance for your pet.

    Read on to learn more about what causes colic in horses, and how you can treat it.

    Types of Colic in Horses

    A diagnosis of colic can mean anything from a light issue to a more serious problem that could require immediate intervention. Below are some of the most common types of colic:

    Gas Colic

    This refers to a buildup of gasses in a horse’s intestinal system and can result in significant flatulence. Gas colic is usually the result of over-fermentation of food in horses’ hindgut which builds gas in the digestive tract. This results in pressure and inflammation that leads to discomfort in horses.

    Spasmodic Colic

    Spasmodic colic is the result of intestinal cramps and spasms that cause pain and discomfort. Additionally, spasmodic colic coincides with intestinal hypermotility, or an increased number of gastrointestinal rumblings beyond the normal degree in any of the horse’s abdominal quadrants.

    Impaction Colic

    Impaction colic is a rarer occurrence in horses, accounting for about a tenth of all diagnoses from veterinarians, but it can result in severe pain.

    These types of colic occur when partially digested food—especially roughage—builds up in the large intestine and creates a blockage which prevents normal digestion while causing constipation.

    Sand Colic

    This is a more common issue for horses that live in sandy areas and is the result of feeding on sand-covered ground.

    Buildup in the intestines, and especially in the large colon, can cause irritation in the intestinal lining and diarrhea. If untreated, it can cause twisted, displaced, or even ruptured intestines.

    Twisted Gut

    If a colic is left untreated, a portion of a horse’s intestine can twist on itself in a process known as intestinal torsion, or even invert into itself. Although it is uncommon (accounting for roughly 4% of colic diagnoses), it can be dangerous and even life-threatening condition.

    Displacement/Entrapment Colic

    Although a more uncommon variety of colic, this type of colic occurs when a horse’s intestine shifts from its normal position in the gut.

    When displaced intestines can’t shift back into their normal location, it becomes entrapped. These types of colic are life-threatening as they stretch the blood supply to the intestinal system and can result in compression.

    Strangulation Colic

    This another uncommon but highly dangerous variety of colic. It occurs when there is a blockage in the blood supply that reaches an area of the intestinal system, which can cause rapid intestinal wall death, and can create a life-threatening scenario if left untreated or undiagnosed for too long. 

    Symptoms of Colic in Horses

    Although it comes in many forms, it can be hard to determine the specific types of colic in horses based simply on a few symptoms. These are some of the biggest signs of colic that you should look for:

    • Kicking and biting at their flanks
    • Tail swishing
    • Excessive pawing at the ground
    • Sweating
    • Rapid breathing
    • Stretched stances with their hind legs far behind the body
    • Violently throwing themselves to the ground
    • Rolling 
    • Repeated laying down and getting up 
    • Extreme agitation and extreme dullness
    • Lying on their backs
    • Curling their upper lips
    • Bloodshot eyes or lips
    • Lack of appetite
    • Looking at their flanks

    It’s worth noting that not all signs will be present if a horse has colic. Moreover, it’s not possible to determine the type based on specific symptoms.

    If your horse exhibits any of the above behaviors, you should immediately call a veterinarian, separate the horse into an enclosed area and keep it under close observation. Additionally, remove any feed, and look out for interest in food or water, as well as bowel movements.

    Treatments for Colic in Horses

    Once a veterinarian has examined your horse, they will be able to determine what type of equine colic they have, and give you one of the following treatments to help resolve the issue:

    • Pain relief – Colic in horses causes pain, so a common treatment is to provide pain-relief medicines such as phenylbutazone.
    • Antispasmodics – With hypermotility (over-activity in the intestine) being another common symptom, drugs that reduce spasms and motility are usually given.
    • Electrolyte and Fluid Therapy – in cases where colic causes diarrhea and dehydration, veterinarians may prescribe fluid treatments administered via intravenous drip or a stomach tube.
    • Laxatives – If a colic causes intestinal blockage and impaction, your horse may receive liquid paraffin or other laxatives via a stomach tube.
    • Surgery – In the most extreme cases (such as twisted guts, strangulation, or displacement), surgery is the only alternative for treatment, and unfortunately, is a risky one with a 50% success rate.