Nutrition and colic

Professor Jo-Anne Murray
PhD, MSc, PgDip, BSc (Hons), BHSII, RNutr, PFHEA University of Glasgow Veterinary School

Colic in horses

Colic in horses is defined as abdominal pain that is usually caused by pain in the gastrointestinal tract but can also be due to pain from another abdominal organ. There are numerous types of intestinal issues that can cause similar symptoms that range from mild to severe, with some being life threatening. As such, colic is one of the most common causes of death in horses; however, there are more treatment options available now compared with many years ago and as such the prognosis for a horse with colic is much better now than in years gone by. There are many different issues that can cause colic in horses and, like us, horses are sensitive to pain in their gastrointestinal tract. Diet is a major cause of colic in horses and sudden changes in diet are known to result in horses being at a greater risk of developing colic.

The different types of colic are often referred to as spasmodic colic, impaction colic, twisted gut and sand colic. In spasmodic colic pain is generally due to a build up of gas in the horse’s gut due to excess fermentation and/or decreased motility in the gut. Impaction colic is when a blockage occurs in the gut and a twisted gut is where a section of the intestine twists upon itself, leading to an interruption in blood supply to that area.

Assessing if your horse has colic

If you suspect your horse has colic you must call your veterinarian as soon as you observe the first signs as early treatment of colic leads to better outcomes. Your vet will most likely tell you they would rather have a chat with you over the phone about an early colic rather than attending a more severe case of colic that they may have been able to help sooner. Signs of mild colic include flank watching, restlessness and pawing the ground. Your horse’s appetite may be decreased, and you may notice less droppings and/or a change in the consistency of the droppings; for example, they may be looser or firmer.

In moderate colic cases you may also see your horse stretching out hind legs like they are about to urinate, they may also be lying down and getting up and/or lying on their side for long periods. In more severe cases of colic your horse may demonstrate violent rolling, sweating and rapid breathing. Therefore, if you can record your horse’s vital signs, which include temperature, heart rate and respiratory rate that will be of great help to your veterinarian. It is also helpful to know what your horse’s normal vital signs are and keep a record of this to compare to. A horse’s average temperature is between 37.5 and 38.5oC and you can measure this by inserting a lubricated thermometer into your horse’s rectum. To take your horse’s respiratory rate you need to watch the movement of your horse’s rib cage, where an inhale and exhale counts as one breath. It is best to do this from a distance, to prevent your presence

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