What does Colic mean?

The definition of colic is; pain caused by a problem with an abdominal organ.  This can be pain from any part of their digestive tract, liver, kidney, or reproductive organs.  However, the majority of colic cases are due to disturbances of the gastro-intestinal tract.

What is the horse’s Gastro-Intestinal Tract?

The horse’s GI tract consists of the stomach, small intestine, cecum, colon, and small colon.

1.The stomach in the horse can comfortably hold 2-3 gallons and is basically a mixing station for food before it is passed on to the small intestine.  The size of the horse’s stomach is relatively small considering the size of the rest of the GI Tract.  Food and liquid generally are only in the stomach for around 10-20 minutes.

2. The small intestine is roughly around 80 feet long and this is where the majority of the digestion and absorption of nutrients from their grain occurs.  This is a fairly rapid transit system sending food along at approximately 1 foot per minute.

3.The cecum is a large wine-flask-shaped organ capable of holding anywhere from 5-7 gallons of fluid and plant material.  This is a fermentation chamber where a significant amount of water is re-absorbed back into the body and where the breakdown of plant material is initiated.

4. The large colon is around 10-14 feet in length and is basically free floating in the belly.  It generally will contain around 20-25 gallons of water and food material.  This is where the rest of the water is re-absorption and continued digestion of plant material takes place.

5. The small colon is another 10-12 feet in length and is the last part of the system where the rest of the water is re-absorbed and the feces are formed.

The horse is basically designed to eat small amounts of food over a long period of time.

What causes colic?

There are many different causes of colic, but the bottom line is that when horses colic there is a disturbance in one of the five regions of the GI tract.  This can be due to impaction, gas, entrapped or twisted small intestine, displacement or twist of the colon, parasites, ulcers, poor teeth care, over-eating/over-feeding of grain, ovulation, etc.

What are the signs of colic?

A horse can exhibit many different signs but they are all a reflection of the fact that they have abdominal pain.  They may show any combination of the following signs: biting at sides, pawing, lying down, rolling, not eating, stretching to urinate but no urination occurs, looking at belly, kicking at their belly, sweating, and trembling.

When to call the vet?

If you have any questions it is always better to give me a call and let me know what is happening and then we can make a judgment as to what to do next. The important thing to determine with colic is whether the colic is a surgical case or a medical case.  A surgical case is a physical problem that can only be repaired by surgical manipulation.  A medical colic is treated with just drugs and fluids.

Surgery Prognosis:

1. For large colon colic the surgical success rate is in between 80-90%.

2. For small intestine colic the success rate will be more in the 45-60% range.

How to Prevent Colic:

There is no tried and true method to preventing colic but there are some practices you can follow.

1. Try to keep their daily routine consistent and try not to make any sudden feed changes.

2. Feed good quality hay.

3. If feeding grain, try to feed 2-3 times throughout day instead of one big meal.

4. Provide plenty of clean, fresh water (careful of ice in the winter!!).

5. Provide good maintenance care with worming and teeth programs.

6. Be closely observant to changes in their behavior or stall habits.

Unfortunately, colic cannot be 100% prevented; early diagnosis and treatment will provide your best results from either medical or surgical colic.

*It is helpful to you the owner, to me the veterinarian, and most importantly the horse, to decide ahead of time if surgery is an option.  The quicker a horse is operated on the much better the prognosis. *