Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Colic Means Pain in the Gut


Pet Column for the week of August 21, 2000


Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
By Carrie Gustavson
Information Specialist

"If you suspect your horse may have colic," says Dr. Martin Allen, equine veterinarian
at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, "the most crucial thing is
to get veterinary assistance as soon as possible."

Unfortunately, colic ends up killing more horses than any other equine problem. Colic is
generally a combination of signs that tell us the horse is experiencing abdominal pain. Those
signs include turning the head to look at the flank, getting up and down, circling in the stall
or pasture, and rolling. "As the colic progresses, we'll see increased heart rate, respiration
rate, and sweating," says Dr. Allen.

When you call, your equine veterinarian will try to determine how serious the colic is, how
long it's been going on, and what treatments have been given. Dr. Allen points to the two
biggest mistakes people make when dealing with horses and colic. "The first mistake is
trying to feed a horse with colic, and the second is not getting the horse veterinary help soon
enough. If you think it's colic, don't wait," he says.

Though colic can range from mild to severe, a veterinarian should always evaluate it. That's
because the condition causing the colic can proceed to a life-threatening situation very
quickly.

There are several things that could be going on in your horse's intestines to be causing the
abdominal pain, or colic. Colic can be related to parasites, infection, or stress. In another
common scenario, the normal muscle contractions that keep intestinal contents moving
along through the gut are disturbed or halted completely. When a horse's bowels are not
working right, the backup of semi-digested food can cause an impaction and a buildup of
gas with painful distension.

Another cause of colic is anatomical. A horse's gut is put together in such a way that it is far
too easy for a piece of intestine to twist on itself or move to an abnormal location. When
torsion or displacement occurs, not only is it extremely painful for the horse, but the
circulation can be cut off to a section of gut, effectively strangulating it. Emergency surgery
is generally required to reposition the gut and remove any dead tissue.

"The type of colic a horse may get generally depends on the age and breed of the horse,"
says Dr. Allen. "For example, in post-foaling mares in the spring, we see a lot of
displacements, while in older horses we see more strangulating lipomas, a fatty growth in
the gut cavity that can loop around a section of intestines."

When it comes to preventing colic, management can play a role. "Preventing colic falls into
the category of proper feeding and supplying lots and lots of fresh, clean water for your
horse," says Dr. Allen. Check with your local equine veterinarian for equine nutrition and
colic prevention tips.