Colic: Do’s and Don’ts

Here's your don't-panic list of what to do if your horse shows signs of this potential killer.

Colic is the number-one killer of horses. Knowing exactly what to do from the moment you first notice colicky behavior can speed your horse’s recovery and spare you a lot of anxiety.

Photo by Caroline Fyffe

What Is Colic?

Colic isn’t a specific diagnosis; it’s an umbrella term for abdominal pain. Such pain has many causes, including gas in the digestive tract; obstructions and feed impactions; bowel twists; strangulating tumors; ruptures; and even nervous, cardiopulmonary, or musculoskeletal issues elsewhere in the body.

We talked to Julie Dechant, DVM, MS, DACVS, of the Equine Surgical Emergency and Critical Service at the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California, Davis, to find out how best to handle a colic emergency. 

Here’s what she had to say:

DO call your veterinarian immediately if you notice symptoms such as restlessness, sweating, groaning, looking at the belly, pawing or stamping the ground, or lying down and attempting to roll. Delays in treatment can reduce your horse’s chances for survival or prolong his recovery—plus wind up costing you more than it otherwise would have with prompt advice and treatment.

DO be prepared to answer your vet’s questions. Jot down observations of your horse’s condition. Does his pain seem severe and unrelenting, or mild and intermittent? At what time did he last seem normal? Did you witness the onset of colicky behavior, and if so, when did it begin? If possible, examine recent manure piles and note the amount and consistency. 

If it’s safe to do so (more on safety in a moment), assess your horse’s vital signs: temperature, heart rate, respiratory rate, mucous membrane color, capillary refill time. Write down any instructions your vet gives you, then keep a running notation of any changes in your horse’s condition.

[LEARN: How to assess your horse’s vital signs.]

DON’T attempt to medicate on your own. Many medications (such as bute or Banamine) can alter the clinical signs your vet needs to accurately assess your horse’s underlying problem. Speak to your vet first and follow his/her advice.

DO (if possible) move your horse to a safe place, such as a well-bedded stall or small paddock. Pain may make him thrash about, and you don’t want him to injure himself. At the same time, put your own and any helpers’ safety first, as a colicky horse can inadvertently injure those trying to assist him. In the worst-case scenario, you may need to wait for your vet to arrive to deal with the pain before you handle your horse.

DON’T allow your horse to eat. Food is a definite no, but whether or not to give water is controversial, as some causes of colic may be aggravated by continued drinking. Your best course is to give him small amounts of water—say, three swallows every five minutes or so; this will help many types of colic while minimizing the risk of causing harm.

DON’T walk your horse to exhaustion. If he’s persistently trying to roll, yet is safe to handle, walking him for 10 minutes at a time may provide a useful distraction from the discomfort. But constant walking for prolonged periods can exhaust an already sick horse. If he’s lying quietly, it’s fine to let him rest.

DO keep your vet apprised of any changes in your horse’s condition.

[RELATED: How to avoid sand colic.]

When Your Vet Arrives…

…he or she will review your horse’s medical history and the progression and duration of colic signs, then conduct a general physical examination. Your vet may also:

  • Insert a nasogastric tube (stomach tube) to decompress your horse’s stomach and possibly administer oral fluids and mineral oil.
  • Perform a rectal examination to feel for blockages.
  • Perform an abdominocentesis (tapping of abdominal fluid) to check for abnormalities.
  • Collect blood samples for further testing.

If your horse must go to a hospital setting, he may undergo abdominal ultrasound, abdominal radiographs, and gastroscopy (scoping of the stomach), as his condition is further investigated.

[LEARN MORE from an equine vet’s real-world scenarios of colic.]

Getting Prepared in Advance

To save yourself time and anxiety in the event your horse ever does experience colic, do these things in advance:

  • Determine what’s normal for your horse, including his vital signs and his regular habits. The latter includes how he eats, how often he likes to lie down, whether he’s prone to pawing, what his manure piles look like and how often he produces them.
  • Post the phone number of your regular vet (and a back-up) in a prominent place in your barn and home, and/or program them into your cell phone.
  • If you don’t own a truck and trailer, plan how you’d transport your horse in the event he needs to go to an equine hospital. Know where such a facility is, and how to get there.
  • Think over the decisions you might be faced with in a colic emergency, such as the expense of surgery. Do you have financial or practical considerations that would affect that decision-making? It’s easier to consider such things when you’re not in a stressful, red-alert situation.
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