Colic in Horses: Recognize the Signs

Owners, beware. THE NUMBER ONE KILLER OF HORSES IS COLIC! But it's not a disease. It is not an immediate accident. And, unfortunately, it is not thoroughly understood.

It can, however, become life threatening in a relatively short period of time. By quickly and accurately recognizing a combination of signs--and seeking qualified veterinary help--the chance of a horse recovering from colic can be maximized.


Classifying Colic

Colic is abdominal pain that can range from mild to severe. Though there are myriad causes, most colics fall into one of three groups:

  • Intestinal Dysfunction--This is the most common category and simply means the horse's bowels are not working properly. It includes such things as gas distention, impaction, spasms, and paralysis.
  • Intestinal Accidents--These occur less frequently and include displacements, torsions, and hernias, where sections of the intestine become trapped or pinched in body cavities. These almost always require emergency surgery.
  • Enteritis or Ulcerations--These are colics related to inflammations, infections, and lesions within the digestive tract. They can be caused by numerous factors including stress, disease, salmonellosis, and parasites.


Recognize the Signs

Symptoms can vary greatly between individuals, making it difficult for owners to identify colic. The more common signs are:

  • turning head toward the flank
  • pawing
  • kicking or biting at the abdomen
  • stretching out as if to urinate without doing so
  • rolling, especially if it is violent
  • absence of, or reduction in, digestive sounds
  • elevated pulse rate
  • lack of bowel movements
  • lip curling (Flehmen response)


Stop! Your horse is colicking--what do you do?

Time is perhaps the most critical factor if colic is to be successfully treated. The American Association of Equine Practitioners recommends the following action plan if you find your horse has colicked:

  • Remove all food and water.
  • Call your veterinarian immediately.

While you wait . . .

  • Take the horse's pulse rate, respiratory rate, and rectal temperature.
  • Check the color of mucous membranes.
  • Test capillary refill time by pressing on gums adjacent to teeth, releasing, then counting the seconds it takes for color to return.
  • Make note of behavioral signs such as rolling, pawing, etc.
  • Make note of bowel movements, including color, consistency, and frequency.
  • Recall any recent changes in management, feed, or exercise.
  • Have medical history ready for the veterinarian, including deworming and past episodes of abdominal pain.
  • Know insurance status and value of the horse.
  • Keep horse as calm and comfortable as possible. Allow the animal to lie down if it appears to be resting and is not at risk of injury.
  • If the horse is rolling or behaving violently, attempt to walk the horse slowly.
  • Do not administer drugs unless specifically directed to do so by your equine practitioner.
  • Follow your veterinarian's advice exactly and await his or her arrival.
  • Notify the insurance carrier if surgery or euthanasia is being considered.


Preventing Colic

While horses seem predisposed to colic due to the anatomy and function of their digestive tracts, management can play a key role in prevention. The following guidelines can maximize the horse's health and reduce the risk of colic:

  • Feed a high-quality diet comprised primarily of roughage (twice as much energy should be supplied from a roughage source than from concentrates).
  • Change the intensity/duration of an exercise regimen gradually.
  • Check hay, bedding, pasture, and environment for potentially toxic substances, such as blister beetles, noxious weeds, and other ingestible foreign matter.
  • Reduce stress. Horses experiencing changes in environment or workloads are at high risk of intestinal dysfunction.

For more information on colic, please contact the American Association of Equine Practitioners for a brochure on understanding colic, the digestive tract, and its function.

About the Author

American Association of Equine Practitioners

AAEP Mission: To improve the health and welfare of the horse, to further the professional development of its members, and to provide resources and leadership for the benefit of the equine industry. More information:

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