Staying Ahead of Equine Colic
“It’s colic”… perhaps one of the most dreaded phrases for horse owners and rightly so. Second only to old-age, colic is the leading medical cause of death in horses. Any episode of equine colic may threaten your horse’s life and should be treated as an emergency.
Sadly, colic is a common disorder of the equine gastrointestinal tract and affects up to 11% of horses every year. Gaining an understanding of what equine colic is, the types of colic in horses and the causes of colic in horses will empower you to support your horse if the situation arises.
In this post let’s explore the signs, known causes, and types of equine colic.
The term ‘colic’ broadly describes ‘abdominal pain’. In horses, colic refers to a condition of severe abdominal discomfort which is characterized by a combination of behaviors that indicate a horse is in pain, including pawing, rolling, and attempts to kick or bite at the abdomen. Other common signs of equine colic include:
- Lack of appetite
- Reduced or no fecal output
- Turning the head toward the flank
- Stretching out as if to urinate
- Repeatedly lying down and getting up
- Reduced or no gut sounds
- Elevated pulse rate
- Sweating and rapid breathing rate
What Causes Colic in Horses
Feeding and management are often implicated in colic and this should come as no real surprise as colic occurs in the gastrointestinal tract. Your horse’s gastrointestinal tract relies on a delicate microbial population to maintain pH balance and support healthy digestive function. A disruption of the equine microbiome not only increases the risks colic but also gastric ulcers in horses.
When the equine microbiome is offset it can result in a horse not digesting food matter properly, leading to digestive stagnation. If the horse does not have adequate water intake, the cecum is a common site for blockage and impaction. The primary function of your horse’s cecum is fiber digestion and absorption. On average, it can hold 8-10 gallons of food and water. The cecum relies on an active microbial population for the breakdown of food through the fermentation process. Food enters and exits the cecum at the top, therefore increasing the risk of impaction if the horse becomes dehydrated or lacks water through the digestive process.
In nature, the horse’s diet is composed of grasses, leaves, and bark and access to forage is largely unrestricted, with horses covering many miles per day to seek out forage sources. This picture is often far from the reality for our domesticated horses, due to the demands, we place on them.
Our reliance on highly processed feeds, feeding practices which limit natural behaviors, sudden changes in diet and environment, confinement to stables and paddocks, rigorous training and competition regimes, hauling over long distances, and ineffective parasite control can wreak havoc on digestive health.
An imbalance or disruption to the gut flora can increase your horse’s risk of colic, diarrhea, laminitis, and much more. Kathleen Crandell, Ph.D., equine nutritionist and consultant to Kentucky Equine Research in Versailles states, “Maintaining horses on forage-based diets with minimal amounts of concentrates and avoiding abrupt change in diet are key factors involved in gastrointestinal health.”
Types of Colic
While colic is often linked to an accumulation of gas, fluid, or feed, most cases of colic in horses are idiopathic or ‘of unknown origin’. This means in an alarming 80% of colic episodes we cannot say for sure what caused the horse to colic.
There are several types of equine colic which are defined into the following categories:
- Spasmodic colic: Abnormal contractions in the intestine or bowel that create painful cramps or spasms. Described as an “over-active” gastrointestinal tract.
- Impaction colic: The intestine or bowel is blocked by a mass of partially digested food, often roughage, preventing normal defecation. Linked to poor dentition.
- Gas colic: An excessive build-up of gas in the stomach or intestine, causing distension, pain, and flatulence. Linked to the ingestion of large amounts of grain or moldy feed.
- Sand colic: This occurs in horses living in or fed from sandy ground. Fine particles of sand accumulate in the intestine, resulting in pain and colic.
- Twisted gut: A portion of the intestine twists on itself (intestinal torsion) or inverts into itself (intussusception). This situation is thankfully rare, but very serious.
- Displacement or entrapment colic: The intestine moves from its normal position in the abdominal cavity, stretching the blood supply.
- Strangulation colic: This occurs when the blood supply to part of the intestine is cut off, or strangulated. If treated early, it has a 95% recovery rate.
Foundation of Health to Reduce the Risk of Colic for Your Horse
There are many opinions on how to prevent colic in horses. Caring for my own personal herd of four and through my experience as a Certified Equine Naturopath, I’ve discovered effective natural care principles that promote overall digestive health. If your horse is struggling with digestive problems and you want to reveal the underlying cause, click here to grab a FREE copy of my book and discover the forgotten framework of care that will transform your horse’s health.
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Life is better when you’re horsin’ around!