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By J.R. Snyder, DVM, PhD, Diplomate ACVS, Chief of Equine Surgery & Lameness, Professor, University of California, Davis

Death from colic is twice as high as other diseases, including trauma, in a normal farm population. Colic signs can be derived from either the intestinal tract of a horse or from non-intestinal causes. Non-intestinal causes may include: tying up, founder (laminitis), pneumonia-pleuritis, ruptured bladder in foals, uterine torsion, heart failure, urinary stones. Intestinal causes include: distension of the intestine, obstruction of the intestine (feed impaction, round worm impaction, enterolith, sand, foreign body), strangulation of the intestine, gastric ulcers.

Questions to consider:

  • Which horses would be considered for surgery?
  • How much money are you prepared to spend?
  • How will you transport the horse and to what hospital will you take him?
  • Will your insurance policy (if any) cover surgery?
  • Who is responsible for making decisions in your absence?

Initial steps for your horse:

  • Remove all food and water.
  • Notify your veterinarian.
  • Keep the horse as calm and comfortable as possible.
  • If horse is rolling or behaving violently, attempt to walk slowly.
  • It’s ok to let the horse roll as long as it’s safe!
  • Do not administer any drugs unless specifically directed to do so by your veterinarian.
  • Follow your veterinarian’s advice.

What a veterinarian might ask for on the phone:

  • Pulse rate
  • Respiratory rate
  • Rectal temperature
  • Color of mucus membranes
  • Capillary refill time
  • Behavioral signs
  • Gut motility noises
  • Bowel movements
  • Changes in management
  • Medical history
  • Insurance status

What your veterinarian may do at the farm:

  • Complete physical examination
  • Pass a stomach tube
  • Rectal examination
  • Blood tests
  • Abdominal tap
  • Administer analgesics or sedatives
  • Administer laxatives

If the above treatments do not improve the horse’s condition, your veterinarian may suggest sending the horse to a referral hospital. At the hospital a surgeon may recommend advanced diagnostic techniques or exploratory surgery. After surgical intervention, the horse will receive intensive care including the following:

  • Intravenous fluids
  • Antibiotics
  • Analgesics
  • Slow re-introduction to feed
  • Monitoring

The risks of surgical intervention include:

  • Recovery
  • Endotoxic shock
  • Infection
  • Adhesions
  • Hernia of the abdominal wall
  • Diarrhea
  • Laminitis (founder)

Prevention of Colic

The following tips may help prevent colic in your horses:

  • Provide a constant source of fresh drinking water.
  • Maintain at least 60% forage in the horse’s diet.
  • Feed grain only as needed for weight and performance.
  • Avoid rapid changes in feed.
  • Provide routine and regular exercise every day.
  • Develop a parasite control program with your veterinarian’s help.
  • Maintain proper dental care.
  • Minimize transportation stress.
  • Develop a feed program to aid in the prevention of enteroliths.
  • Control sand problems.
  • If necessary, use medications to manage horses with gastric ulcers.

Colic - "California Style" by J.R. Snyder, DVM, PhD, Diplomate ACVS, Chief of Equine Surgery & Lameness, Professor, University of California, Davis