What is colic?

Colic is a term used to describe a symptom of abdominal (belly) pain, which in horses is usually caused by problems in the gastrointestinal tract.

There are over 70 different types of intestinal problems that cause colic symptoms, which range from mild to severe (life-threatening) in nature.

Colic is one of the most common causes of death in horses, although the prognosis today is far better than it once was. This is largely due to improvements in the way in which we diagnose and treat colic, better anaesthetic drugs and monitoring and improved surgical techniques.

Early diagnosis and surgical treatment of more serious cases of colic remains one of the most important factors in giving horses the best chance of survival following colic surgery.

What causes colic pain in horses?

Like humans, horses are relatively sensitive to anything causing pain within the intestine.

This might be due to intestinal spasms (cramp), the gut wall being stretched by gas or feed material, the blood supply being shut off to part of the gut or intestine becoming stuck (entrapped) somewhere abnormal.

Occasionally there are non-intestinal conditions, such as laminitis, bladder stones or ovarian problems, that may initially look like symptoms of colic. This is known as 'false colic', but may still be very serious.

What are the symptoms of colic in horses?

Horses will typically display some or all of the following:-

In mild cases:

  • Lip curling.
  • Flank watching. 
  • Restlessness. 
  • Pawing the ground.

In moderate cases:

  • Posturing to urinate frequently.
  • Lying down and getting back up.
  • Lying on their side for long periods.

In severe cases:-

  • Violent rolling. 
  • Sweating.
  • Rapid breathing. 
  • Injuries to body and face from rolling and thrashing around.

What should you do if you suspect colic?

Colic is a potentially life-threatening disease. If a horse displays moderate or severe symptoms they will need urgent veterinary attention and possibly referral to us, if this is an option.

If your horse displays mild symptoms of colic try walking them around (do not canter or trot) for no more than ten minutes. If symptoms persist for more than 30 minutes or are more severe in nature call your vet immediately.

If you think your horse is showing signs of colic please contact your veterinary surgeon.