Equine Colic: Different Types of Colic in Horses

Among the most common afflictions that affect horses and other domestic animals is equine colic. There are many different causes, and it's important to seek treatment as soon as possible.
Equine Colic: Different Types of Colic in Horses

Last update: 18 April, 2019

Equine colic affects the gastrointestinal tract. The term colic actually encompasses a whole range of health issues, and there are many different causes and symptoms.

Colic is one of the most common equine health issues, and there are many different types. In this article, we’ll tell you more about the different types of equine colic, the possible causes, and the symptoms that can help you recognize them.

Symptoms of equine colic

Equine colic often occurs with a complex range of symptoms that can vary greatly, depending on the cause of the pain, and the body of the individual animal. In scientific terms, this is described as multifactorial etiology.

However, there are some symptoms that are common to most types of equine colic, such as:

  • Nervous or anxious behavior
  • Restlessness
  • Gastrointestinal cramps
  • Excessive sweating
  • Abdominal swelling and gas
  • Abdominal pain
  • Dehydration
  • Constipation
  • Rolling
  • Awkward, flailing movements, which might lead to them injuring themselves.
A horse with colic might lie down or roll.

Types of equine colic

The different types of equine colic are usually classified according to their cause, the symptoms they produce, and the region of the body that is affected. These are the most common types:

1. Impaction colic

Impaction colic occurs when there is a blockage in the horse’s gastrointestinal tract. Naturally occurring – or spontaneous – narrow spots are usually the most common cause of impaction colic.

In general, obstructions occur when a horse eats low-quality hay or straw, which can be difficult for them to digest. However, it can also be caused by eating foreign objects.

2. Gas colic

This type of equine colic occurs when there is a build up of gas in the intestines. The fermentation produced by the bacteria in the gut flora leads to the abdomen and the intestinal mucosal barrier becoming distended, causing intense pain.

Gas colic almost always occurs when horses eat too much feed too quickly.

3. Strangulation colic

Strangulation colic occurs when the blood supply to an area of the intestines is cut off, leading to the death of the intestinal wall. In general, this loss of circulation and oxygenation in the gastrointestinal tract is associated with an infestation of endoparasites.

Worms such as roundworms or tapeworms are some of the most common types of intestinal parasites in horses, and are the main cause of strangulation colic.

4. Spasmodic colic

Spasmodic colic usually occurs when a horse drinks very cold water, or large amounts of water too quickly. However, it can also be caused by viral or bacterial infections, which often cause other symptoms such as diarrhea.

A vet examines a horse.

Equine colic: treatment

The treatment your vet will prescribe will depend on the root cause of the colic, and the general level of health of your horse. Treatment plans usually focus on relieving pain and abdominal distension to improve the animal’s quality of life.

If intestinal parasites are present, a vet will prescribe a dewormer to get rid of them. During the vet’s visit, they will usually also check that the horse’s vaccinations are up to date. If necessary, they will give them a booster to prevent any other illnesses.

The vet might also want to review the horse’s diet in order to choose the right treatment. They will probably take a look at the quality of their hay, their eating habits and feeding times.

Surgical options

If the horse has eaten a foreign body of some kind, a vet might need to operate in order to correct any narrowing of the intestines. Fortunately, this is rarely necessary.

Finally, it’s important to mention that living conditions can also be a factor in a horse developing colic. Because they are such sensitive animals, they are easily affected by changes in their environment, and can often suffer from stress.

When it comes to planning the layout of the stables and facilities, it’s essential to create a relaxing and positive environment for your horses, giving them optimal conditions for physical and mental development. This will have a significant impact on their health in the long run.

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