COLIC IN HORSES - Understand Avoid and Prevent

The very word colic chills the heart of many horse owners. Find out more about this problem, learn what to do if it happens and how to take measures to avoid it.
 
The term 'colic' means a set of symptoms which indicate a degree of abdominal pain or 'pain in the belly'. There are many causes of such a pain and the result may be anything from a relatively mild attack to a very severe life-threatening attack, which may result in death.

Veterinary advice must always be sought as soon as any symptoms are observed; it is often difficult to diagnose the severity until a thorough examination has been carried out by a vet. Time is of the essence.

The passage of food through the gut
 
The horse's anatomy is a wonderful creation. However, although the gastro-intestinal tract or are similar to most other animals, the horse has a few unique design features which unfortunately predispose it to colic.
 
A horse's stomach is relatively small, in relation to the animal's overall size, and has a capacity of about 8-15 litres, which is well suited for an animal which grazes continuously in a natural environment. However for domesticated horses this can bring problems.
 
Following the initial digestion in the stomach, the matter passes through the small intestine: this is a long sausage-like organ, suspended from a membrane resembling a net-curtain, and the length is an incredible 22 meters with a circumference of a tea cup. It is in here that almost all absorption of the nutrients occurs.

At the entrance of the large intestine is the caecum, which is known as a blind sac and is rather like our own appendix - it is here where problems may occur. It only has one opening where the food is taken in, digested by microbes, then passed out of the same channel. Should any blockage occur in this opening the system gets backed up causing colic.

Under normal ie non-colic circumstances, once cleared of the caecum the matter enters the large intestine where further fermentation occurs and where wastes from the body are secreted in readiness for being passed from the body.


                                                                                   The diagram shows the parts of the horse's disgestive tract
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1. Mouth
2. Pharynx
3. Oesophagus
4. Diaphragm
5. Spleen
6. Stomach
7. Duodenum
8. Liver(upper lobe)
9
.
 Large colon
10. Caecum
11. Small intestine
12. Small colon
13. Rectum
14. Anus
15 Left kindney and ureter
16. Bladder
17. Uretha
 
 
Signs and symptoms of colic
 
* Lying down and getting up more frequently
* Rolling
* Thrashing about in the bedding and pacing the stable
* Pawing the ground - kicking at abdomen
* Turning head towards the flank
* Sweating, shivering and visible signs of anxiety in the eyes and face
* Increased heart rate (normal 36 - 42 per minute)
* Increased respiratory rate (normal 8-12 beats per second)
* Increased temperature (normal 99-101F)
* Straining to urinate or pass faeces
 
What to do 
 
* Observe your horse for a few minutes and note all unusual physical and temperamental behaviour.
* If possible, and safe to do so, take their temperature, pulse and respiration.
* Are they eating and drinking and are there any recent droppings visible?
* Check that the gums are a normal colour and not pale, gently press on the gum to see if the colour comes back within two seconds.
* CALL for Veterinary assistance.
* If recommended by the vet, and it is safe and possible, walk the horse out onto a soft surface, if not ensure that the bedding is sufficiently deep to avoid any further injury to the horse whist rolling.
 
Ways in which to minimise the risk
 
* Always maintain a healthy mouth and teeth - the teeth are the primary start of the whole digestive process. The proper mastication of food and concurrent production of saliva assists the movement of the foodstuff along the tract and begins the carbohydrate digestion.
* Operate a regular and effective worming programme as parasite infestations can cause significant damage to the intestinal wall, ulcerations and perforations along the intestine, reducing its ability to act correctly.  
* Maintain a well balanced and regular feeding schedule. Feed as good a quality food and forage as you can and do not over feed; small feeds fed regularly are more easily absorbed and dealt with by the gut than one or two big feeds. 
* Allow as much turnout as possible to ensure a constant grazing culture, do not starve or over graze pastures as this may result in gorging when food becomes available.
* Ensure constant access to fresh clean water and monitor intake.
* Organise a routine for both the exercise and feeding of your horse. Sudden changes in diet or work load can upset the delicate balance of digestion.
* Observe your horse's mannerisms, habits, visual persona and learn what suits them most, every horse is an individual and in order to do what is best for your horse learn to watch them at rest as much as you can. Reduce the risk of your horse getting colic 

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