Equine Extra: Diagnosing And Treating Colic In The Field

Equine Livestock

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A veterinarian’s first look at a case of colic often occurs outside the clinic

Colic in horses is a broad term encompassing any sort of abdominal pain. A horse owner is usually the first to notice the signs of distress. Then, a veterinarian commonly evaluates the animal in the field.

“Colic simply means the horse is showing signs of abdominal pain,” notes Kira L. Epstein, DVM, Dip ACVS, Dip ACVECC, clinical professor at the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine. “That pain can be caused by a wide variety of diseases.”

Knowing the signs

The signs of colic can range from subtle to more obvious, classic behaviors like rolling on the ground.

“It’s important for the owner to recognize the signs of colic early,” Epstein says. “Some horses will get better on their own, but we always recommend calling your veterinarian.”

Common signs of colic include:

  • Not eating
  • Not passing as much, or different types, of manure
  • Changes in appetite
  • Looking at the abdomen
  • Pawing
  • Kicking at the abdomen
  • Lying down repeatedly and not wanting to get up
  • Urinating or posturing to urinate more frequently
  • Rolling on the ground

Once a horse owner notices these signs, it’s best to call in a veterinarian. Most veterinarians also recommend removing the horse’s food to prevent additional problems. Walking the horse can help encourage defecation, keep them distracted and prevent them from injuring themselves. Owners should not walk horses that are so uncomfortable that they may accidentally injure the owner.

Behind the signs

Causes of colic can range from minor to very serious. The University of Minnesota notes that most cases of colic – around 75 percent – readily respond to treatment and are likely due to gas or probable impactions. In these cases, in-field treatment is generally effective, and it can take as little as a few hours to resolve.

An in-field examination is the first step to determining the cause. The initial evaluation is best for quickly categorizing the case as something likely to resolve with treatment in the field or requiring referral for further medical management or possible surgery.

Epstein notes that she typically starts with a physical examination, passing a nasogastric tube and performing a rectal exam to narrow down the possible causes. Commonly, one of the first steps is to treat the signs with analgesics and anti-inflammatory products.

“We’re looking to see how the horse responds to analgesics and what type of problem we think the horse has,” she says. “If we can feel an impaction, we may simply treat with laxatives. If the horse doesn’t respond, or if the underlying cause is more serious, we may recommend hospitalization for medical or surgical treatment.”

Quick response

The most frequently used analgesics are anti-inflammatories like flunixin meglumine and sedatives like alpha-2 agonists and/or opioids. Administration of analgesics and sedatives allows the veterinarian to safely perform diagnostics and provides information on the horse’s level of pain. In cases of mild colic, symptomatic administration of analgesics may resolve the episode of colic.

“My personal preference is to use xylazine if it’s the first time I’m seeing the horse for this episode of colic,” Epstein says. “It’s a short-acting product that helps me understand if they are going to get colicky again. If the horse is being difficult, or I don’t have the ability to restrain, I’ll use detomidine or romifidine or add butorphanol. They are all easy to administer, and it really depends on personal preference and timing.”

Horse owners have become more attuned to catching signs of colic early, which helps lead to a quicker diagnosis and treatment.

“There’s been a lot of research into colic,” Epstein says. “As you understand the problems more, you get better at diagnosing them and have a better outcome overall.”

Learn more at VetFolio

Top 5(ish) Drugs You Should Understand When Diagnosing and Treating Colic in the Field.

Understand the horse’s anatomy

  • The horse is a monogastric animal.
  • It has a relatively small stomach with a capacity between 8 of 10 liters.
  • The junction of the esophagus and the stomach permits gas and fluid to move into the stomach – but not out.
  • Consequently, conditions that impede the normal movement of gas and fluid down through the small intestine may result in dilation and rupture of the stomach.
  • An adult horse’s stomach can be difficult to visualize with radiography or ultrasonography.

Reference: Merck Veterinary Manual

Peek inside a colic kit

A DVM’s colic kit helps alleviate abdominal pain for the most common causes and typically includes:

  • Rectal sleeve
  • Lubricant
  • Gastric intubation equipment
  • Pump
  • Bucket
  • Water
  • Laxatives (mineral oil)
  • Balanced electrolyte powder
  • Pain medication (Banamine)
  • Alpha-2 agonists (xylazine, romifidine, and detomidine)