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  • Kate Hillen

COLIC AWARENESS

Updated: Dec 18, 2023

Well friends - are you ready to learn about colic?  For those of you who love horses as much as we do, this is a huge component for a horse's health.  So we will furnish you with some information that is so crucial to caring for our equine friends.  We hope you find this informative and beneficial!

Colic awareness is crucial. The term "colic" in horses essentially means "stomach ache." Horses cannot throw up, so anything ingested orally must be disposed of rectally through bowel movements. There are six forms of colic: Tympanic (gas) colic, Impaction colic, Sand colic, Spasmodic colic, Twisted or Torsion colic, and Intussusception colic.


Typanic, or gas colicin horses is a condition characterized by the accumulation of gas in the digestive tract, leading to discomfort and pain. Horses are hindgut fermenters, meaning that the majority of their digestion takes place in the cecum and colon, where microbial fermentation produces gases as byproducts. Several factors can contribute to the development of gas colic.

Common Causes or Facotors Associated with Typanic or Gas Colic:

  1. Dietary Factors: A sudden change in diet or feeding practices can disrupt the microbial population in the hindgut, leading to increased gas production. Diets high in fermentable carbohydrates, such as grains, can also contribute.

  2. Inadequate Forage: Horses require a consistent and sufficient amount of forage to maintain a healthy hindgut environment. Inadequate forage can result in decreased motility and increased gas production.

  3. Dehydration: Lack of water intake can lead to dry and impacted ingesta in the intestines, reducing normal motility and facilitating gas accumulation.

  4. Limited Exercise: Reduced physical activity can slow down the digestive process and contribute to the stagnation of ingesta in the digestive tract.

  5. Stress: Stressful conditions, such as changes in environment, transportation, or social dynamics, can impact a horse's digestive system and contribute to colic.

Symptoms: Signs of abdominal pain such as restlessness, pawing, looking at the flank, sweating, rolling, and changes in behavior. It is crucial to contact a veterinarian promptly if you suspect colic, as it can be a medical emergency.


Treatment: Relieving the gas and addressing the underlying cause. This may include walking the horse to encourage movement and relieve gas, administering pain medication, and providing fluids. In severe cases, surgical intervention may be necessary.


Prevention: Maintaining a consistent and balanced diet, ensuring access to clean water, providing regular exercise, and minimizing stressors in the horse's environment. Regular veterinary check-ups and monitoring for signs of colic are also important for early detection and intervention.


Impaction colic is another type of colic in horses, and it occurs when a blockage or impaction obstructs the normal flow of ingesta through the digestive tract. This impaction typically happens in the large intestine, most commonly in the pelvic flexure or the colon.

Common Causes or Factors Associated with Impaction Colic:

  1. Dehydration: Lack of adequate water intake can lead to dry and hard feces, making it difficult for the ingesta to move through the digestive tract smoothly.

  2. Inadequate Forage: Diets low in fiber or insufficient access to forage can contribute to impaction colic. Fiber is essential for maintaining normal gut motility and preventing the formation of compacted masses.

  3. Poor Dental Health: Dental issues that hinder effective chewing of food can result in poorly masticated feed, making it harder for the digestive system to process.

  4. Inadequate Exercise: Limited physical activity can slow down the digestive process, leading to the accumulation of material in the intestines.

  5. Environmental Factors: Changes in weather, sudden dietary changes, and stressors in the horse's environment can contribute to colic, including impaction colic.

Symptoms: Behavioral changes such as restlessness, looking at the flank, kicking at the abdomen, reduced or absent manure production, and signs of abdominal pain. The horse may appear uncomfortable, and in severe cases, there might be signs of systemic distress.


Treatment: Addressing the underlying cause and relieving the obstruction. Veterinarians may administer fluids to rehydrate the horse, provide laxatives or medications to soften the impaction, and recommend exercise to encourage movement in the digestive tract. Severe cases may require more intensive medical intervention or surgery.


Prevention: Providing a balanced and appropriate diet, ensuring access to clean and fresh water, maintaining good dental health, promoting regular exercise, and monitoring the horse for any signs of discomfort or changes in behavior. Regular veterinary check-ups can help detect and address potential issues before they escalate.


Spasmodic colic, also known as gas colic or simple colic, is a type of equine colic characterized by spasms or contractions of the muscles in the horse's gastrointestinal tract. Unlike some other forms of colic, such as impaction colic, spasmodic colic often doesn't involve a physical blockage or obstruction in the intestines. Instead, it is associated with excessive gas production or abnormal muscle contractions.

Common Causes or Factors Associated with Spasmodic Colic:

  1. Muscle Spasms: Spasmodic colic is primarily caused by spasms or contractions of the smooth muscles in the horse's intestines. These spasms can be painful and lead to colic symptoms.

  2. Gas Accumulation: Excessive gas production in the gastrointestinal tract can contribute to spasmodic colic. This may result from factors such as rapid changes in diet, fermentation imbalances in the hindgut, or other digestive disturbances.

  3. Dietary Factors: Sudden changes in diet, high-grain diets, inadequate fiber intake, and other dietary factors can contribute to spasmodic colic by disrupting the normal digestive processes.

  4. Stress: Stressful conditions, such as transportation, changes in the environment, or social disruptions, can contribute to the development of spasmodic colic.

Symptoms: Horses with spasmodic colic may exhibit signs of abdominal discomfort, including restlessness, pawing, kicking at the belly, rolling, and looking at the flank. The severity of symptoms can vary.


Treatment: Addressing the underlying causes, providing pain relief, and promoting normal gut motility. This may include medications to alleviate pain and relax the intestinal muscles.


Prevention: Gradual changes in diet, providing a consistent and balanced diet, ensuring adequate fiber intake, and minimizing stressors in the horse's environment. Regular exercise and access to clean water are also important.


Twisted or torsion colic, is a severe and potentially life-threatening form of equine colic. It involves the twisting or torsion of a segment of the horse's intestines, leading to obstruction of blood flow and compromising the normal functioning of the digestive system.

Common Factors Associated with Spasmodic Colic:

  1. Intestinal Torsion: In this type of colic, a section of the horse's intestine twists upon itself. This can result in a complete or partial obstruction of the intestinal lumen, leading to reduced blood flow, ischemia (lack of blood supply), and potential necrosis (tissue death).

  2. Medical Emergency:Torsion colic is considered a medical emergency, and immediate veterinary attention is crucial. The severity of the condition requires prompt diagnosis and intervention to improve the chances of a successful outcome.

  3. Diagnosis:Veterinarians may use a combination of physical examination, rectal examination, and diagnostic imaging techniques such as ultrasound to diagnose intestinal torsion.

  4. Prognosis: The prognosis for horses with twisted or torsion colic depends on several factors, including the severity of the twist, the duration of the colic before intervention, and the overall health of the horse. Early detection and prompt surgical correction are critical for a more favorable outcome.

Symptoms: Torsion colic often presents with a sudden and severe onset of clinical signs. Horses may exhibit intense pain, restlessness, frequent attempts to lie down and roll, sweating, elevated heart rate, and other signs of abdominal distress.


Treatment: Treatment typically involves surgical intervention to correct the twist and assess the viability of the affected intestinal segment. During surgery, the veterinarian may detorse the intestine, remove any damaged or necrotic tissue, and address any other issues contributing to the colic.


Prevention: While the exact causes of torsion colic are not always clear, management practices such as providing a consistent diet, ensuring access to clean water, and minimizing stressors in the horse's environment may help reduce the risk. Some horses may be predisposed to colic, and their management should be tailored accordingly.


Owners and caretakers should be familiar with the signs of colic and seek immediate veterinary attention if colic is suspected, especially if the symptoms are severe or rapidly worsening. Early intervention can significantly impact the horse's chances of recovery from twisted or torsion colic.


Intussusception colic is a type of equine colic that occurs when one segment of the intestine telescopes into another, causing an obstruction. This condition is characterized by the invagination or folding of one part of the intestine into another, leading to compromised blood flow, inflammation, and potential strangulation of the affected area.

Common Factors Associated with Spasmodic Colic:

  1. Intestinal Telescoping:Intussusception involves one segment of the intestine sliding or folding into the adjacent section, creating a telescoping effect. This can lead to a blockage, compromising the normal flow of ingesta.

  2. Diagnosis: Veterinarians may use a combination of physical examination, rectal examination, and diagnostic imaging techniques such as ultrasound or radiography to diagnose intussusception colic. Identification of the telescoped segment is critical for appropriate treatment.

  3. Causes: The exact causes of intussusception in horses are not always clear. It can sometimes be associated with parasites, tumors, or other abnormalities in the intestinal wall. Young horses may be more susceptible, but it can occur in horses of any age.

  4. Prognosis: The prognosis for horses with intussusception colic depends on several factors, including the extent of the intussusception, the duration of the obstruction, and the overall health of the horse. Early detection and prompt surgical intervention are associated with a better prognosis.

Symptoms:Intussusception colic often presents with sudden and severe signs of abdominal pain. Horses may exhibit restlessness, pawing, rolling, and other signs of discomfort. The severity of symptoms can vary depending on the degree of telescoping and obstruction.


Treatment: Treatment typically involves surgical intervention. The veterinarian will aim to correct the intussusception, assess the viability of the affected intestinal segment, and address any complications or damage. Surgical correction is crucial for resolving the obstruction and preventing further complications.


Prevention: While the specific prevention of intussusception may not always be possible due to its varied causes, maintaining good overall health, regular veterinary check-ups, and appropriate parasite control can contribute to the well-being of the horse.


With any horse showing signs of colic, no matter how minimal, it should be taken seriously. Sanctuary Horses recommends contacting your vet as soon as any signs are noticed- better safe than sorry. Practice preventative measures and enjoy your horse!


Kate Hillen

(Board President)

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