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Colic is a term used to describe abdominal pain, that is one of the most common equine emergencies worldwide. Colic has a reported incidence rate of 4-26 episodes per horse-years-at-risk, and a case fatality rate of 6.7-11% for horses living in the United Kingdom and the United States.

There are many risk factors that have been reported to be associated with an increased likelihood of colic. Identified risk factors include:
  • History of previous colic episodes
  • Age
  • Breed
  • Feed-associated: coarse feedstuffs, sudden changes in feed quantity or type, missed meals, poor water intake, ingestion of nonfood substances, ingestion of poisonous plants, feed management, hay quality, presence of mycotoxins
  • Seasonally and weather influenced
  • Behavior-associated: history of cribbing/windsucking
  • Geographically-associated: soil type, hay type
  • Preventative-management-associated: internal parasite load, lack of routine dental care
Geographically-associated: Horses living in or originating from a particular geographic area are more at risk of developing specific types of colic. For example, horses living in areas with sandy soil are more at risk of developing sand colic and enterolithiasis than horses residing in clay soil areas.

Diet-associated: Risk factors relating to diet are usually associated with increased incidences of gastrointestinal impaction. These include feeding too much grain, poor quality grain, course roughage with low digestibility or course fiber (such as Coastal Bermuda grass hay), feeding round bales, lush pasture, changes in hay or grain type, sudden changes in feed routine or quantity, and missed meals.

Common intestinal causes of colic
Colic TypeDescription
GasTypically is brought on by a build up of gas in the large colon or cecum; the gas stretches the intestine which causes the horse pain.
SpasmodicCaused by spasms or increased contractions in the wall of the intestine.
ImpactionThe result of a build up of feed material in the intestine which causes a blockage.
With colic, it is critical that it is recognized early by horse caretakers.

However it is important to note that signs can vary greatly between horses based on their individual pain tolerance and severity of the pain they are experiencing. 90% of colic cases can be treated medically by the veterinarian if addressed promptly, however some require immediate emergency surgery to correct the problem.

Equine management practices should include a strong emphasis on colic-prevention and colic recognition. Horses with a history of colic, living in more-colic prone regions, or during possible colic-associated weather patterns or seasons should receive increased attention during these periods. Measures should be taken to ensure horses have access to, and are drinking enough water on a daily basis. Some of these measures may include:
  • Adding water to feed
  • Filling up water troughs or water buckets daily (studies have shown that horses tend to drink more when there is more water available to them)
  • Supplementing the diet with electrolytes
  • Providing multiple fresh water sources


Repeatedly getting up and down
Rolling or attempting to roll
Reduction in gut sounds
Pawing the ground repeatedly
Repeated kicking or biting at stomach
Prolonged periods of laying down
Stretching out as if to urinate
Sitting in a dog-like position
Decreased or absent feces
Weight shifting
Rapid respiration and/or flared nostrils
Elevated pulse rate
Frequently passing gas


  • History
  • Clinical signs
  • Physical exam
  • Serum amyloid A (SAA)
  • Ultrasound
  • Gastroscopy
  • Radiographs
  • Surgery



Medical managementNSAIDs (flunixin, phenylbutazone, meloxicam), oral fluids, spasmolytics, sedatives, laxatives, opioids, electrolytes, intravenous fluids, walking out or trailer ride
SurgeryWhen surgery is deemed necessary, it often serves as a diagnostic in addition to a therapeutic procedure. The decision to pursue surgery should be made as early as possible in order to increase the improve the prognosis of the horse.


  • Keep feeding and care of horses as consistent and as routine as possible.
  • Avoid any sudden changes in frequency, quantity, or type of feed or forage.
  • Feed high quality feed and hay
  • Implement recommended deworming practices
  • Keep current with dental exams and vaccines
  • Minimize stress
  • Always provide horses easy access to fresh drinking water.
  • Conduct routine fecal examinations
  • Ensure horse gets regular exercise and/or turnout


Varies greatly depending on the cause of the colic and how systemically compromised the horse was at the time of treatment. However, horses that are treated medically or those treated surgically that did not require removal of any portion of the intestine have a good prognosis.

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