Healthy Horses: Colic

One of the most common health problems that horse owners may encounter is colic, a term that encompasses many different forms of gastrointestinal distress and abdominal pain. While many people often speak of colic like a disease or condition of the horse, colic is simply a symptom, much like how a runny nose is a symptom of a common cold. There are numerous causes for a horse to colic, but these intense abdominal pains and their related conditions are the number one cause of premature death in horses. Needless to say, it is important for a horse owner to know the signs of colic, how to differentiate between it and normal horse behavior, and how to help their horse until the veterinarian arrives.

Some horses enjoy rolling- it’s a wonderful way to avoiding biting flies, the dust acting like a natural shield against many pests. There is a definite difference between a horse that is scratching his back and a horse that is rolling and thrashing in pain, however. As with many animals, learn your horse’s daily routine and let any changes he may make be a sign to you that something may be amiss. Horses are creatures of habit so; first and foremost, any abnormal behavior is cause for concern.

A few of the symptoms that are commonly associated with colic include a reluctance to eat, stomping the feet or kicking at their abdomen, turning their head to look at or bite at their stomachs, rolling and thrashing, frequently laying down and standing up again, excessive sweating after light exercise, and abnormal stretching out, as if the horse were going to urinate. Checking your horse’s stall, you may note a lack of bowel movements or an abnormally small number of manure piles (please note, however, that a horse can still have a severe colic but have bowel movements), or you may note that he is breathing more heavily or that his pulse is elevated (a normal, healthy horse’s pulse should not beat more than 52 beats per minute). Some horses have cool extremities when they colic, but if your horse is running a fever and exhibiting signs that he may experience abdominal pain, you should relay this information to your veterinarian immediately. A horse that is running a fever and having abdominal pains could indicate a severe infection.

Horses can colic for many different reasons, but the most important thing to remember is that most cases of colic can be controlled by following several simple management steps: Always make sure that your feed is kept in a water-tight container that your horse cannot get into – horses can colic from not only an overabundance of feed or lush foods, but they can also colic if the food is moldy, the water stagnant, or if there is some other form of contaminant or toxin in the feed. Additionally, a horse should not be fed straight off the ground, as it can result in his ingesting large amounts of dirt or sand, which can also result in digestive problems.

An overheated horse, that is allowed to drink a large amount of cold water, or a horse that suffers a sudden change in either schedule or in feed, can also colic. Even pregnant mares have been known to colic both before and after foaling. Internal parasites, such as roundworms, can also cause colic when they create a blockage in the horse’s intestines. For this reason, you will want to maintain a regular worming schedule for your horse. Obesity and overfeeding your horse can also cause him to suffer gastrointestinal distress. Speak with your veterinarian in regards to your horse and what a healthy weight would be for him, taking into consideration his level of exercise.

So what should you do if your horse colics? Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to tell if your horse’s discomfort can be caused by something similar, such as a simple case of gas, or if he is suffering from a potentially fatal condition, such as a twisted intestine or a blockage in his intestine. For this reason, it is important to contact your veterinarian and follow his advice until he is able to come see your horse. It is advisable to remove feed and water from your horse and, if possible, keep him on his feet and slowly walking. Do not tire him out, but merely walk him gently to keep him from laying down and rolling, potentially harming himself. The main goal is to attempt to keep your equine friend as stress-free as possible, until your veterinarian can arrive.

When you do speak with your vet, be sure to tell him about any abnormalities that you’ve noted – the lack of manure in your horse’s stall, his pawing the ground or biting at his stomach. Also be sure to tell the veterinarian any changes that your horse has experienced, such as different feeds or new grazing pastures, etc. An eye for detail can help save time and speed up a diagnosis and assist your veterinarian.

While it cannot offer a 100% guarantee that your horse will never colic, proper horse management can help eliminate many of the causes of colic and lessen your horse’s risk. Spend time getting to know his usual routine and make sure you are informed, in regards to normal horse behavior and some of the symptoms that your equine companion may not be feeling well. By staying informed, we have won half of the battle and can help to ensure our horses are always happy and healthy.

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