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  • Colic

    Colic is a disease that causes abdominal pain. It is a genuine equine emergency. If your horse is showing signs of colic, then please call either of our clinics as soon as possible.

    We are available 24 hours a day and can offer immediate advice over the phone. In most cases we will recommend that we visit your horse straight away. Most colic cases (over 90%) respond well to medical therapy but a small number (5%) need surgery to effect a cure.

    Mild signs of colic suggest low grade/mild pain, and include:

    • Lip curling
    • Flank watching
    • Pawing the ground
    • Lying down

    Violent uncontrollable signs, such as the following, suggest more severe colic:

    • Suddenly dropping to the floor
    • Violent rolling
    • Abrasions to the head and body
    • Profuse sweating
    • Rapid breathing

    Colic is one of the most common causes of death in the adult horse. If you suspect your horse has colic and signs are severe or persist for more than 30 minutes, call the vet immediately.


    1. Prevent injury by either:

    • Restraining your horse with a bridle
    • Taking it into a stable
    • Turning out into a small school or barn


    3. Restrict food and water

    4. Judicious hand walking can be beneficial

    5. Monitor behaviour

    6. Monitor faeces and gas production


    Toxic mucous membranes (gums are brick red colour)

    When the vet arrives, he or she will determine the pulse rate, respiratory rate and temperature of your horse; listen for gut sounds on both sides of the abdomen and check gum colour.

    It may be necessary to sedate your horse/pony and perform the following:

    Nasogastric intubation – passing a tube up your horse’s nose and into the stomach to check for any excessive fluid (reflux) build up, which usually occurs with intestinal obstruction.

    Rectal examination – determines whether there is any faeces present in the rectum and whether the intestine is out of position or distended.

    Nasogastric intubation

    Peritoneal tap – using a needle to obtain fluid from the horse’s abdomen which is used to assess the health of the intestines.

    Abdominal ultrasound examination – allows us to assess whether the intestine is distended and whether it is moving or not. Diseased or dead intestine does not move. Any abnormal fluid accumulation will also be detected.

    Peritoneal tap


    There is a peak in colic episodes in the spring and autumn and older horses (over 12) are more susceptible. If your horse has ever had a colic episode it will be at increased risk of further episodes. Reduced grazing time, increased parasite burden and a sudden change in feed all increase the risk of colic. Vices such as crib biting and wind sucking massively increase the risk of colic.

    Fortunately, 90% of horses with colic can be treated medically. Around 65% of all colics are spasmodic or benign which either self resolve or respond well to pain relief and intestinal muscle relaxants administered by a vet. Around 17% of all colics are caused by impactions which usually respond well to the administration of oral fluids and gentle exercise. However some cases may need intravenous fluids and admission to our clinic for close monitoring. In 5% of cases medical intervention is ineffectual and the horse has a lesion which requires surgery to fix it. We refer colic cases to Newmarket Equine Hospital, where they have full surgical and intensive care facilities needed for horses undergoing colic surgery.

    A horse receiving i.v fluids


    The bowel becomes over-active, contracting abnormally and going into spasm; this is usually well managed with pain relief and anti-spasmodic drugs. The exact cause is unknown, although there is thought to be an association with high tapeworm burdens. If your horse has multiple bouts of spasmodic colic, a blood test to measure tapeworm burden may be recommended.


    When the gut contents become dehydrated, they can become stuck in a tight bend in the large colon. This is treated by administering oral fluids and pain relief, whilst withholding hay and hard feed, until the impaction has passed. Sometimes intravenous fluids also need to be administered. Prevention includes feeding soaked hay and encouraging drinking. When on box rest, grazing your horse in hand can also aid in improving gut motility.


    Horses’ guts are notoriously badly designed and can sometimes move into abnormal positions. Gas then becomes trapped in the large colon and the horse becomes bloated and painful. Whilst this type of colic can often resolve with pain relief, starving and light lunging exercise, surgery is sometimes needed to manually put the guts back to their normal position. The cause of displacements remains unknown, but they more commonly occur in larger breeds of horse and some can be repeat offenders.

    Exteriorised caecum in horse undergoing surgery
    A pedunculated lipoma


    These types of colics are the most serious and life-threatening, with horses needing emergency surgery. The sooner the horse goes to surgery after first displaying symptoms the better the prognosis for a full recovery. Horses are violently painful despite pain relief and become very sick over a short period of time. One of the most common causes of strangulating colic in older horses is a pedunculated lipoma – a fatty lump that dangles from a stalk, which then wraps around the intestine and cuts off its blood supply.

    For further information please watch our YouTube client talk video on Colic.