Colic in Horses: Symptoms and Treatment

horsecolicWhat is Colic?

Colic literally means “pain in the abdomen” or “pain in the belly” but is actually a symptom instead of a diagnosis. There are several different types of colic, with the most common listed below:

Impaction: The intestine is blocked by a compact mass of food, sand, parasites or dirt. Impaction is fairly common, usually treated with mineral oil or another laxative and resolves easily with proper treatment. This can be caused by a diet with course fiber or roughage with low digestibility. 

Gas: Sometimes gas will build up in the intestine (usually in the large intestine or caecum) and will stretch the intestine, causing pain and discomfort. Gas and fluid can sometimes build up in the stomach second to an intestinal obstruction. A nasogastric (stomach) tube can be inserted by your veterinarian to help relieve the pressure of the gas and fluid accumulation in the stomach.

Enteritis or Colitis: Infection, viruses and bacteria can all cause inflammation of the small and large intestine which in turn causes abdominal pain. This type is more serious and requires immediate veterinary attention.

Idiopathic (unknown): Over 80% of colic cases are unknown.

Displacement/Torsion: Also referred to as “twisted gut”, a portion of the intestine has moved to an abnormal position in the abdomen or a piece of the intestine twists. This very lethal type usually requires immediate veterinary attention and surgery if the horse is to survive. Early stage symptoms are very similar to less threatening forms of colic which is why ALL cases should be taken seriously and veterinary care should be sought at the earliest possible time.

Signs and Symptoms

The severity of symptoms depend on the type of colic and range from mild to extremely violent:

– lying down more than normal                                  – getting up and down frequently or violently
– standing stretched out (as if to urinate)                 – turned head / biting at flank
– pawing ground                                                           – kicking at abdomen
– rolling                                                                            – depression
– unwillingness to move                                                – reduced activity
– poor appetite                                                              – playing in water bucket
– constant shifting of weight on hind limbs               – standing against wall and not moving
– profuse sweating

What do I do?

The first thing every horse owner should do is, CALL A VETERINARIAN! The more severe the symptoms, the more severe pain the horse is in. If you are unsure, call a veterinarian. Do not administer any medications unless your veterinarian instructs you to. One mistake to NOT make is to attempt to treat the horse yourself with a drug called Banamine. Banamine is an analgesic (pain medication), so giving it might mask the seriousness of the problem for several hours so it may seem like the horse is getting better when in reality the problem may be getting worse. Time is not on your side with colic cases. Take food away until your vet arrives. Walking the horse slowly may help to distract from pain and try to not allow any rolling.

Be ready to answer the following questions if possible:

– What is the horse’s temperature, pulse, and respiration rate? (Click here to learn how.)
– How has his/her appetite been for the last 24-48 hours?
– What is the consistency and frequency of defecation?
– What color are the gums?
– Has the horse had access to unusual feed? Any medications given?
– Any management or feeding changes?

Your veterinarian will perform a complete exam on the horse and look for evidence of previous colic episodes, such as: skin abrasions, swollen/reddened skin around eyes and over hips (from rolling), feces, and scrapes from pawing. Treatment will depend on the type of colic.


Some factors that are believed to help reduce the risk of colic are listed below:

– allow as much turnout as possible                        – abide by your feeding schedule
– keep feed off the ground (sand colic)                   – give constant access to fresh/clean water
– do not feed moldy grain or hay                              – do not overgraze pasture
– give hay and water before grain                         – feed at least 60% digestible energy from forage
– no feed or water after vigorous exercise               – keep a constant exercise regimen
– make any feeding changes slowly                          – feed smaller and frequent meals
– control intestinal parasites                                      – provide regular dental check-ups
– provide heaters in water sources in cold weather

Each type of colic is unique. Owners must realize and understand what the symptoms look like. If you haven’t already, establish a good client-doctor relationship with a veterinarian familiar with horses. Owners should also keep in mind what factors play a role in preventing colic, such as feeding, activity level, overall healthcare, changes in activity, and age. Please call us at 309-543-2091 if you have any questions.