The C word ~ What is Colic?

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The word colic is enough to strike fear into any horse owner. Not only can it be very distressing to watch, but it can also be fatal. But what exactly is colic? And what is the best way to treat and prevent it? Over the next few weeks I hope to answer all your burning colic questions and give you all the information you need as a horse owner. In this first post I am going to answer the question of what is colic and look at some of the different types of colic. 

What is colic? 

Colic is a broad term to describe general stomach/belly pain in horses and is the biggest killer of horses. You could argue that colic is actually a symptom of something else, rather than the actual problem. 

Why do horses get colic? 

Colic can be anything from trapped wind to something more serious like a blockage. In fact there are over 70 different conditions what can cause a horse to colic. Typically these conditions affect the gastrointestinal tract, but they can appear in other areas too.  

Because there are so many different causes of colic, it is hard to really pin point why horses get colic. But when you dumb it down, horses basically get colic because something in their belly is uncomfortable. 

What are the different types of colic? 

There are quite a few different types of colic, but they do often fall into two categories; idiopathic and non-idiopathic. 

Idiopathic colic 

Idiopathic colic accounts for roughly 80% of colic cases and is typically less serious than non-idiopathic colic. These types of colic are harder to pin point the problem and are often linked to lifestyle and diet. 

Gas/Spasmodic Colic 

Gas colic is when there is a build up of gas in the digestion system, usually caused by the horses diet. A bit like trapped wind in humans. Spasmodic colic is very similar to gas colic, but can also be caused by stress or excitement. It has been likened to indigestion in humans. Both these types of colic can be seen when the spring grass comes through.

Impaction Colic 

Impaction colic make up about 10% of all colic cases and basically means there is a build up or blockage in the horse’s digestive system. It can be caused by eating something they shouldn’t, dirt, sand, stones or even poor quality horse food. This can lead to the horse not being able to poo and if not treated can become more serious. But on the whole it is usually fairly simple to treat. 

selective focus photography of white horse laying on ground. What is colic
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Non-idiopathic Colic 

With non-idiopathic colic cases you can usually identify the root of the problem, which tends to be a more serious, life threatening problem

Dilation Colic 

Dilation colic can be very serious and usually occurs after an impaction or gas build up causes the stomach to expand. While this is very rare, it is very dangerous. If this is not picked up on, the stomach can rupture and there is no cure for that. 

Intussusception Colic 

Intussusception colic is most common in horses under one year and is usually caused by parasites. The problem occurs when the intestines move/collapse in on themselves, cutting off the blood supply, similar to torsion colic. 

Displacement Colic 

Displacement colic is when a part of the intestine, usually the large colon, moves to a different place. If the intestine cannot move back to where it was, it can lead to entrapment colic. 

Entrapment/Torsion Colic 

Entrapment and torsion colic are very serious as this is when the blood supply gets cut off to that part of the gut, causing it to slowly die.  This either happens by moving into a position where it becomes stuck or twisting around itself. This is often the type of colic people are referring to when they say twisted gut. Something has moved/twisted and the blood supply is slowly cut off. 

Colic can be incredibly scary and distressing for everyone involved. But while it is quite common, most cases are quite mild with a very good chance of making a full recovery. For those more serious cases, we also have a lot better understanding of the causes and treatments available. So as long as you act quickly, they can still make a full recovery. 

Next week I will be talking about what you should do if you think your horse has colic. I will look at the common symptoms and the latest veterinary advice. 

Last Updated on 03/07/2021

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