Colic is defined as any abdominal pain although horse owners typically refer to colic as problems with the gastro-intestinal tract. The causes of colic are numerous, but generally they are related to the anatomy and the microflora of the horse’s gastrointestinal tract.

Some more common causes of colic include:

  • Too rich of feed (green grass, too much grain)
  • Abrupt change in feed
  • Parasite infestation
  • Lack of water consumption leading to impaction colics
  • Moldy feed
  • Long term use of NSAIDS
  • Stress
  • Dental problem

Signs of colic include:

  • Pawing
  • Rolling
  • Bloating
  • Turning to look at flanks
  • Loss of interest in food and water
  • Peculiar postures (sitting, stretching)
  • Absence of gut sounds
colic colic



Types of Colic

Gas colic – all colics are associated with some gas build up. Gas can accumulate in the stomach as well as the intestines. As gas builds up, the gut distends, causing abdominal pain. Excessive gas can be produced by bacteria in the gut after ingestion of large amounts of grain or moldy feeds. A nasogastric (stomach) tube inserted by a veterinarian is used to relieve the pressure of the gas and fluid accumulation in the stomach.

Impaction colic – the large intestine folds upon itself and has several changes of direction (flexures) and diameter changes. These flexures and diameter shifts can be sights for impactions, where a firm mass of feed or foreign material blocks the intestine (including the cecum). Impactions can be induced by coarse feed stuff, dehydration or accumulation of foreign material like sand.

Displacement colic – the small intestine is suspended by in the abdominal cavity by the mesentery and is free floating in the gut. This mobility can predispose the small intestine to become twisted. A twisted intestine requires immediate surgery to reposition the intestine and remove any portion of the intestine that is damaged due to restricted blood flow. In addition, both the small and large intestine can become displaced in the abdominal cavity causing both pain and restricted blood flow. Displacement colic can be caused by gas build up in the gut that makes the intestines buoyant and subject to movement within the gut. Displacement colic needs immediate surgical treatment.

Intestinal Volvulus (Twisted Gut) – The most serious form of colic, in a volvulus the gut twists around the connective tissue root that is suspending it and carrying its blood supply. When this happens, blood supply to the tissue is cut off and the intestine starts to die off immediately. This is extremely painful for the horse and can only be fixed with surgery that needs be done as soon as possible.

Spasmodic colic – defined as painful contractions of the smooth muscle in the intestines. Spasmodic colic has been compared to indigestion in people and is usually easily treated by a veterinarian. Over excitement can trigger spasmodic colic.

Enteritis/Colitis – inflammation of the intestine possibly due to bacteria, grain overload or tainted feed. Horses with enteritis may also have diarrhea. Enteritis or colitis is often hard to diagnose and may present itself similar to displacement or impaction colics.

To give the proper treatment for colic, it is important to determine the cause, so that it can be corrected. The severity of the signs of colic is not necessarily indicative of the severity of the colic, and sometimes it is difficult to determine the exact cause and therefore the correct treatment. For these reasons make sure to have a veterinarian evaluate your horse as soon as possible. Many cases of colic can be treated successfully with medication, while others involving severe impactions or twists may require immediate surgery.

While you are waiting for your veterinarian, you should:

  • Observe your horse and monitor vital signs as well as passing of any feces. Remove access to feed. If there is a blockage, any feed intake will only intensify the problem.
  • Let the horse rest as much as possible. It is not necessary to walk the horse unless the horse is rolling and endangering himself or people.
  • Do NOT administer any medication without the direction of the attending veterinarian. Pain medication may mask the colic symptoms and complicate diagnosis and treatment. In addition, Banamine if administered in the muscle can cause a clostridial abscess that can be fatal. Banamine should always be administered intravenously or orally.

Upon arrival, the veterinarian will listen for gut sounds, monitor vital signs, pass a nasogastric tube and perform a rectal exam. Most colic cases can be treated on the farm with medication and the use of a nasogastric (stomach) tube to alleviate gas and administer medications. However, if the veterinarian suspects a displacement or an impaction that can’t be successfully treated on site, we will refer you to an equine surgical hospital.

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