Colic 101

By Joanne Fehr, DVM, MS, Diplomate ACVS, Emergency Clinician, Pilchuck Veterinary Hospital

Colic is a term most horse owners know and dread, as they are aware of the potential seriousness. Colic is not a disease, merely a symptom of a disease. It is defined as abdominal pain coming from any abdominal organ.

The incidence reported for colic in the general horse population is four to 10 cases out of 100 horses in one-year time. Of these colic episodes, 80% to 85% are classified as simple colic or ileus and respond to medical treatment with no specific diagnosis.

There are other disease processes that can present like colic, so the first thing to do is call your veterinarian after observing your horse for a short time. Most colics will present with some degree of discomfort, whether that is lying down, pawing, or just looking lethargic, depressed and not interested in eating. Note that these signs can also be present when a horse is suffering from laminitis, pneumonia, neurologic disease or a fever, to name a few. This is why it is important to call your veterinarian and answer all the questions he or she may ask. If determined that it is indeed a colic episode, the veterinarian may recommend giving a dose of Banamine while he or she is on the way to examine your horse.

What should you expect when the veterinarian arrives? While a complete physical examination is being performed, you will be asked a number of history questions and signalment of your horse. This information can be very useful in determining the possible causes for the colic episode. You will be asked your horse’s age and breed, and about previous history of colic, deworming history, feeding history and any changes that may have occurred in the horse’s routine. This information may indicate the need to rule out strangulations, volvuluses, ulcers, inflammatory bowel disease, spasmodic colic or impactions. 

Based on the physical examination findings, a rectal examination may be performed to gather more information on potential impaction, displacement or distention of the intestinal tract. A nasogastric tube may then be placed into the stomach to rule out reflux and administer fluid therapy. During the exam, your veterinarian may give your horse some sedation to help with the process or to control pain.

The response to this initial analgesic therapy has been shown as an indicator of the need for referral and possibly exploratory surgery. In other words, if your horse continues to be painful and needs repeat dosing of sedation and analgesia, then the need for more intense work-up, treatment and possible surgery is very likely. The best parameters to determine if your horse needs to be referred for further diagnostics and treatment are:

  • Uncontrollable pain
  • Small intestinal distention
  • Gastrointestinal reflux
  • Toxic mucous membranes
  • Increasing heart rate
  • No gastrointestinal motility over repeat examinations

It is important to know that based on many large studies, the sooner a colic patient gets to a referral facility, the better the prognosis will be. Overall survival rates for surgical colics are 85%, small intestinal lesions lower at 50% to 70% and large intestinal lesions as high as 90%.

Reach Pilchuck Veterinary Hospital’s equine department at 360.568.3111. 24/7 emergency care available. Located in Snohomish.