Your horse is not acting right – pawing, laying down and rolling – what’s going on? These are classic signs of the mysterious and feared disease colic. What is colic, you ask? The term refers to pain often associated with the gastrointestinal tract, but can also be caused by other problems not associated with the stomach/intestines, or even the abdomen. Colic occurs in horses of all shapes, sizes, and ages. Broodmares, pre- and post-foaling, are particularly susceptible due to the length of gestation and the size of the foal. Foals are most commonly seen for meconium impactions.
There are many causes of gastrointestinal colic, which can be divided into medical and surgical conditions. Mild problems such as gas and spasmodic colics , mild to moderate impactions, and mild intestinal infections can be treated on the farm with minimal therapeutics such as pain management, laxatives, and antibiotics. Moderate to severe impactions and simple colon displacements can often be managed on the farm with more invasive procedures like intravenous fluids, multiple laxative therapies, jogging/lunging, trocharization to relieve gas distention, and pain management. Some conditions are severe enough to require regular monitoring that may not be available on the farm. These cases can be sent to a referral hospital for continued medical therapy.
Sometimes medical therapy is not sufficient and the problem requires surgical correction. This is the case with severe impactions/intestinal stones, intestinal displacements with gas distention, and small or large intestinal torsions. The diagnosis of these conditions can be easy or extremely difficult depend ing on where in the abdomen the problem occurs. If the problem cannot be detected with rectal examination, then often medical therapy is instituted and the horse is monitored for pain and progress. Foals and miniature horses are particularly difficult to evaluate due to their size. If the animal continues to be extremely painful requiring multiple doses of pain relievers, or the subsequent examinations show further deterioration in condition, then often the horse is referred to a surgical facility for evaluation and treatment. This does not always mean colic surgery. Some conditions resolve with trailering and further medical treatment at the referral center. If they do not resolve, then the horse will be taken to surgery to correct the problem if possible. Not all problems can be corrected, especially if the blood supply for parts of the intestines was compromised. This is why time is of the essence for contacting your veterinarian when you notice signs of colic in your horse.