“I think your horse has colic” are words that can strike fear in any Lansing horse owner’s heart. But what is colic? What signs should you look for? How serious is it?
What is colic?
Colic refers generally to pain originating in the abdomen. Unlike humans, dogs, bovines – or most other creatures in fact, equines are hindgut fermentors. Equine digestive systems are quite sensitive and if there is any disturbance of gut function they tend to show signs of pain. Colic is the number one emergency health concern for horses.
What are the signs?
There are many different reasons for horses to get colic, but often the signs look similar regardless of the cause. Signs of mild discomfort may include stretching, pawing the ground, looking back at the abdomen, standing as if to urinate and generally acting restless. If the horse is in significant pain, it will get up and down, try to roll to get more comfortable and begin sweating. More serious cases will get up and down and roll constantly, as though writhing in pain.
What should I note?
According to thehorse.com, if you think your horse may have colic observe him for 30 minutes and note the following:
- General behavior
- Frequency of abdominal pain
- Frequency of abdominal sounds (normal, increased, decreased, or absent)
- Abdominal size (normal, reduced, distended)
- Nature of peripheral pulse (normal or weak)
- Packed cell volume
- Capillary refill time (the length of time it takes for gums to return to normal color after pressure is applied, an indicator of the quality of blood circulation through this area)
- Other signs (sweating, wounds, etc.)
- Water intake
- Presence of and consistency and regularity of feces
If the horse still demonstrates signs of discomfort after that time, it is important in involve your veterinarian. Providing the observations you have made will assist the vet in assessing the situation quickly when he or she arrives.
What can you do while you wait for the vet to arrive?
Walking your horse may encourage more normal gut function and can soothe the pain. Prevent him lying down to roll, which can cause injury and is thought to cause twisting of the digestive system. If he is lying down quietly, you may allow him stay there. Give care to your own safety as well, keeping in mind that horses often forget all their usual manners when they are in pain.
What will my vet do?
When the vet arrives, he or she will evaluate your horse. The vet will listen to the abdomen with a stethoscope to determine whether there is more or less activity in the gut than normal. The heart rate gives a good indication of the severity of the pain and the seriousness of the problem. A horse with a normal heart rate probably does not have a serious problem; a high heart rate is not such a good sign.
A very useful part of the examination is the rectal examination. By feeling the intestines, the vet may be able to identify the cause of the discomfort. It goes without saying that this is a very skilled procedure, which has risks. But for an experienced equine vet the insight is invaluable. It may reveal a blockage, or a swollen loop of intestines as a result of a twist or other intestinal catastrophe.
In all but the most straightforward cases the vet may pass a tube through the nose into the stomach . It sounds unpleasant but often may make the horse more comfortable by releasing the pressure in the stomach. It can also give the vet useful information about whether the stomach is emptying properly.
Sometimes the horse is in so much pain that it is impossible for the vet to examine him properly without first giving a dose of sedative or pain killer.
What if my horse needs treatment?
After a variety of additional observations, the veterinarian can suggest treatment. He or she will be able to provide emergency pain relief and decide whether further treatment is necessary. A mild, intermittent colic can be treated conservatively, while a horse with a torsion (twisted intestine) will require surgery. He or she may recommend taking the horse to Michigan State University’s emergency vet clinic, which is open 24 hours, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. According to Vanessa Cook, Vet MB, PhD at MSU, your call goes directly to an equine resident.
MSU Large Animal Clinic: (517) 353-9710
Only by considering all of the signs revealed by a careful examination is the vet able to make a tentative diagnosis. Even then it may not be possible to tell exactly what is going on.
Fortunately the vast majority of cases respond to medical treatment. But if surgery is needed – it is important to operate early. The chance of a successful outcome is much better if the operation is carried out before too much damage has occurred.