Colic In Horses

We treat colic in horses as an emergency!

We understand that seeing your horse affected by colic can be a traumatic experience for both horse and owner. We recommend that you call us as soon as possible. Our equine vets are available 24 hours a day on 01327 811007.

Emergency horse vet service


We are proud to say that Towcester Equine Vets is a REACT to colic champion and our team works alongside the British Horse Society to spread the word to horse owners about colic and how to be prepared should the worst happen.

Visit the BHS website or head over to our social media pages to see content on how owners should prepare for a colic episode. Information on emergency planning, referral practices and reducing the risk of colic are all available in PDF downloads.

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What is colic in horses?

Colic is a term used to describe abdominal pain and, depending on the cause of the pain, your horse’s condition may deteriorate very quickly.

Our vets are experienced at dealing with colic and can efficiently assess the situation and discuss all treatment options with the owner, achieving the best outcome possible.


Signs of colic

If you find your horse displaying one or more of the following symptoms, call the team so that they can assess how urgently the horse needs to be treated.

  • Lip curling
  • Flank watching
  • Pawing at the ground
  • Lying down
  • Suddenly dropping to the floor
  • Violent rolling
  • Abrasions to the head and body
  • Profuse sweating
  • Rapid breathing
  • Increased respiration (and heart rate)
  • Abnormal mucous membrane colour


What causes colic in horses?

Horses may experience an episode of colic for a number of reasons and our team require a thorough history when you phone in. This helps the vet to determine the cause of the colic and the likely treatments they may need to perform. These may include questions such as:

  • Has your horse passed any droppings?
  • If so, were these of normal consistency for your horse?
  • When did the colic signs begin?
  • How is your horse’s demeanour?
  • Has anything changed in your horse’s routine (eg. yard move, pasture change, feed/ forage change)?
  • Has your horse got access to food or water currently? (If so we will ask owners to remove these)
  • Can you safely check the colour of your horse’s gums? If so what colour are they?
  • Can you safely check your horse’s temperature? (Normal is between 37.5-38.5 degrees celsius)
  • Is your horse’s respiratory rate faster than normal (normal is between 8-16 breaths per minute)

By taking all of this information for the vet ahead of the appointment, they can determine how urgent the call is and whether or not they may need assistance from one of our equine nurses.


How can I help to prevent colic?

In some instances the cause of colic can be determined, but often the cause remains unknown. Older horses can be more susceptible to colic, as well as those that have recently undergone a surgical procedure. All our surgical patients are monitored closely during their recovery and will often board at our clinic for a few days post operatively.

  • Horse’s that wind-suck or crib bite are at an increased risk of suffering from colic. Trying to discourage this habit by providing environmental enrichment and a good routine can help to reduce the risk.
  • Make management changes gradually. If you plan to change your horse’s hard feed, mix the old and new feed in together over the course of a week to allow their gut to adapt to the new diet.
  • Similarly with hay/haylage. Different suppliers have varying amounts of sugar in the bales so mixing the old and new forage together will allow your horse’s digestive system to adapt accordingly.
  • It is recommended to transition horses from Summer to Winter paddocks gradually, allowing adaptation to the new pasture and prevention of over-eating.
  • Regular worming ensures that your horse’s parasite burden is low, therefore increasing gut health and decreasing colic risk. Please call us to enquire about our strategic, targeted worming programme.
  • Periods of box rest and a lack of exercise can contribute to your horse suffering from colic. A dry diet of hay and hard feed, compared to moisture rich grass can slow gut transit times which may increase the risk of impaction colic.
  • Ensure access to fresh drinking water at all times. Keeping your horse hydrated is key to avoiding colic. Soaking hay and wetting feed will encourage moisture intake and therefore reduce the risk of impaction colic as gut fill is of softer consistency.

Advice on how to avoid Winter Colic


Types of colic in horses & treatment options

In line with current colic research our vets see an increase in colic episodes amongst horses during the Spring and Autumn months when most management changes occur. The majority of colic cases can be managed medically with IV pain relief and intestinal muscle relaxants. The use of oral fluids and gentle exercise may also help certain cases, however some cases require more intensive management.

Where indicated we can discuss the option of hospitalising a horse with colic due to the nature of their forthcoming management, including continuous intravenous fluid therapy and repeated nasogastric intubation. This describes the process of passing a tube up the horse’s nose, down the oesophagus and into the stomach to allow any reflux (excessive fluid built up in the stomach following an intestinal blockage) to be removed or to deliver large volumes of oral fluids and electrolytes.

In some instances certain types of colic require surgical intervention which requires referral to a specialist equine hospital. Our local hospitals are lists below. There are other options available which our vets can discuss with you.

Spasmodic colic describes a condition where the horse’s bowel becomes over-active and goes into spasm due to abnormal contractions. This type of colic is usually managed well with pain relief and anti-spasmodic medication. The exact cause of spasmodic colic is generally unknown but good management practice can help to reduce the risk. Often, horses with a high worm burden are subject to multiple episodes of spasmodic colic. If this is the case, the attending vet will be able to discuss a worming protocol and or perform a blood or saliva test to determine the tapeworm burden in your horse’s gut.

Impaction colic can occur due to dehydration, dental issues, gorging on feed or bedding (in particular straw), periods of increased box rest or reduced turn out and or exercise resulting in a mass of food build up which becomes lodged in the large colon. The pelvic flexure is a common site for impaction colic due to the reduction in size of the colon at this point in the gastrointestinal tract and the 180 degree turn which the colon takes. Our vets usually treat impactions by administering large volumes of oral fluids and pain relief whilst putting the horse through a period of starvation until the impaction has passed. Numerous nasogastric intubations are required every 2-4 hours, in an attempt to soften the impaction. With this in mind, owners often choose to refer their horse in as an in-patient to our clinic which allows our team to monitor them closely and administer pain-relief throughout the night.

Displacement colic describes gas which becomes trapped in the horse’s large colon causing the colon to move out of place and the horse to become bloated and painful. This often affects larger breeds of horse or mares which have recently foaled. Whilst this type of colic often resolves with pain relief and light exercise, displacement colics can reoccur. In some cases, the colic is non-resolving and surgery is required to correct the displacement.

Strangulating colics are the most serious cases and are life-threatening situations. The earlier these cases are detected, the higher the chance of a positive outcome. Often surgery is largely indicated. Such cases are usually violently painful despite pain relief and can deteriorate very quickly. Such cases are real emergencies and veterinary advice should be sought immediately. Very often strangulating colics are caused by the blood supply being cut off to part of the intestines due to a pedunculated lipoma; this is a fatty lump dangling from a stalk of tissue which wraps around the intestine, stopping circulation and killing off part of the live tissue. If this happens, surgery or euthanasia are unfortunately the only options for horses.


What you should know if you decide to refer your horse for colic surgery

  • Colic surgery can be expensive and a deposit or insurance excess is usually required by way of an up-front payment to the referral practice. The cost of surgery and aftercare is individual to each case but it is sensible, if your horse is insured, to notify your insurers of the situation and to research your insurance limit. Depending on your level of cover, colic surgery can often exceed your limit which may influence your decision and how to budget appropriately going forward.
  • Colic surgery aftercare can be demanding on both horse and owner and it is worth reflecting on your situation and ability to provide the intensive aftercare required before going ahead with the surgery. A long period of box rest, rehabilitation and regular checks are needed, as well as follow up vet visits and medication over the following months. Your own vet should be able to provide more information based on the clincial status of your horse.
  • You need to be able to arrange transport to a referral centre as Towcester Vets are not able to provide this service. There are some transport companies in the locality which may be able to help, but usually finding a friend or relative offers a speedier resolution. Remember that you should travel with your horse’s passport.


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