Colic is a common problem that can affect horses of all ages. The majority of colic episodes pass quickly and require only limited treatment.

In some cases, more intensive treatment requiring hospitalisation, and/or surgery is required. Because it is not always obvious whether a colic episode is a serious one, owners are advised to seek veterinary advice as soon as possible. Your equine vet will be able to determine whether treatment in the yard is appropriate, or whether referral to a hospital is needed.

‘Colic’ is not a disease in itself; it is merely a symptom of disease, indicating pain in the abdomen (belly). There are many different conditions that can cause a horse to show signs of abdominal pain. Most of these involve the digestive system, i.e. the stomach or intestines, although colic can also be related to other body systems such as the reproductive tract.

Signs of colic in horses

Horses show abdominal pain in many different ways. Some signs, such as curling the upper lip, are subtle and easily overlooked, whereas other signs, such as repeated rolling or violent thrashing, are hard to mistake. The severity of the clinical signs does not always correlate with the severity of the underlying disease process, particularly in the early stages.

Common signs of colic include:

  • Turning the head towards the flank (also known as ‘flank watching’) 
  • Pawing the ground 
  • Kicking or biting at the belly 
  • Stretching out as if to urinate, without passing any urine 
  • Lying down and getting up repeatedly 
  • Repeated rolling, often accompanied by grunting sounds
  • Sitting in a dog-like position, or lying on the back 
  • Holding the head in an unusual posture, e.g. with the neck stretched out and the head rotated to one side 
  • Lack of interest in food - either not finishing a meal or complete disinterest 
  • Less frequent or absent bowel movements 
  • Less obvious or absent digestive sounds 
  • Sweating in the absence of physical activity or hot environmental temperatures 
  • Rapid breathing and/or flared nostrils 
  • Increased pulse rate (greater than 50 beats per minute) 
  • Depression 
  • Lip curling in the absence of sexual interest 
  • Teeth grinding

An individual horse may show any one or several of these signs. Seeing any of these signs, particularly if they are persistent, should prompt you to monitor the individual closely. In more serious conditions the signs often persist or worsen with time and fail to respond to pain medication, whereas in milder cases the signs may only be intermittent and may disappear after a short time with no treatment.

Some cases of colic resolve without veterinary attention, however, a significant percentage of horses ultimately require medical treatment. The most critical factor in the successful treatment of colic is time, particularly if the horse requires emergency surgery.

If you suspect your horse is suffering from colic, we recommend you call your veterinary surgeon immediately. They may decide it is not necessary to see your horse immediately, but leave the decision to them. Be prepared to provide them with as much information as possible.

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Round-the-clock care

The RVC's Equine Referral Hospital has state-of-the-art facilities needed to carry out advanced diagnostics, colic surgery and intensive care treatment for horses with colic, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

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