Aqueos - How to spot equine colic

Aqueos - How to spot equine colic

Colic is one of the most common reasons equine veterinary surgeons are called to attend a horse in an emergency, so as a horse owner it is crucial to know the signs of colic to look out for. If you care for your horse or pony on a day-to-day basis, you will become familiar with their normal routine and their normal behaviour; any changes in their behaviour, even subtle changes, may help you to recognise the early signs of colic.

What is colic?

The term ‘colic’ is used to describe abdominal pain in horses and ponies, and is a symptom rather than a specific diagnosis. Individual horses and ponies may react differently to abdominal pain, and therefore can display symptoms in a variety of different ways, however there are common patterns to look for.

What do I need to look for?

The range of signs relating to colic is varied, but below is a list of signs to look out for. Theses signs of colic may be seen in isolation, or a horse or pony may show a number of these signs at the same time. Signs may also wax and wane during the course of an episode of colic, or progress to more serious symptoms.

In a horse with colic, common signs include:

  • change in demeanour – is your horse dull or depressed, tired or lethargic, or just a bit quieter than usual?
  • change in faecal consistency – firmer than normal droppings are a sign of dehydration of the gastrointestinal tract and can be a primary cause of colic, but can also be secondary to a separate condition affecting the gastrointestinal system
  • change in number of droppings – either passing a reduced number of droppings, or no droppings at all, can be a sign of colic
  • change in appetite – little or no interest in food (particularly significant in an otherwise normally greedy horse!)
  • rolling repeatedly
  • repeated attempts to lie down, but not getting settled
  • lying down more than usual – either lying flat out, or in ‘sternal’ i.e. on their chest with their legs tucked underneath them
  • change in posture – is your horse holding his or her head lower than normal, or standing in a rocking horse stance i.e. front and back legs stretched out as if to urinate
  • pawing the ground and disturbed bedding – especially significant if your horse or pony’s bed is usually very neat when you arrive at the yard in the mornings
  • flank watching, turning to look at belly, or biting at sides of abdomen or flank
  • kicking at belly
  • box walking
  • unexplained sweating
  • skin abrasions over the eyes, potentially accompanied by swelling of the eyelids – this can be a sign that your horse or pony has been rolling and/or potentially cast overnight (or whilst unattended during the day)
  • increased heart rate – especially if unexplained i.e no vigorous exercise in last 10 minutes
  • rapid breathing rate – especially if unexplained
  • reduced or absent gut sounds
  • changes in the colour of your horse’s gums (mucous membranes) – these should be a pale pink salmon colour, and when pressed firmly at the margin between the teeth and gums, the circulation should return within two seconds.

What else can I check?

As an owner, or the primary caregiver of any horse, it is sensible to know the normal values for their temperature, pulse and respiration. If these are abnormal, you can report the values to your veterinary practice at the first point of contact, which may help them to arrange appropriate care for your horse or pony as soon as possible.

Practise taking these readings so that you are familiar with your horse’s normal values, but also so that you can easily establish the readings in an emergency situation. Your veterinary surgeon will be able to show you how to measure heart and breathing rates, and demonstrate to you how to properly use a rectal thermometer.

Take care if examining your horse when they are showing colic symptoms, as they may not behave as they normally would.

Why is identifying colic so important?

Time can be critical in equine colic, especially if the underlying cause relates to blood supply to the intestines. If you have concerns that your horse or pony may be showing signs of colic, an examination with your veterinary surgeon sooner rather than later is always preferred, as any delay may influence the outcome. 

The large majority of cases of colic are easy to treat if managed appropriately, but for critical cases, the sooner treatment is commenced the better the chance of survival. Unless specifically advised by your veterinary surgeon, do not be tempted to administer medication to your horse or pony to mask the signs of colic, as if this may delay examination and appropriate treatment, and could influence the outcome for your horse or pony.

Article written by Jessica Putnam BVMedSci(Hons) BVM BVS(Hons) MRCVS – 25th April 2021