- Call your veterinarian right away if your horse is showing consistent signs of colic pain and relay six vital pieces of information.
- Your veterinarian needs to see your colicking horse early to conduct a thorough, methodical initial exam and establish a baseline.
- Whether to treat medically or surgically depends on a variety of factors, and time is of the essence; certain diseases or processes responsible for colic can cause irreparable damage within hours.
Imagine you are holding a stopwatch, thumb poised and ready like a clocker at the racetrack. Eyes sharp for signs of movement, you peer in your horse’s stall, expecting to see him happily munching hay in the corner. Instead, he’s glancing back at his flank, lying down, stretching out, then getting up again. It’s clear he’s suffering from colic, or abdominal pain. Your stomach lurches at the sight, and you punch the timer button.
“From the time that you notice clinical signs of colic as a horse owner, that’s the time that the stopwatch starts,” says Dr. Keith Latson, an equine surgeon and co-founder of FullBucket, an online veterinary-strength supplement business based in Weatherford, Texas.
Latson knows colic. He has evaluated thousands of colic cases and operated on hundreds. His FullBucket co-founder, Dr. Rob Franklin, an internal medicine specialist who has also seen his share of these cases, agrees you must have a stopwatch mentality with colic.
“Don’t walk your horse all night long before you call your veterinarian,” says Franklin. “There are certain diseases or processes that are responsible for colic that have a finite period before there is irreparable damage done to the horse, and even the most talented surgery teams in the country can’t save it.”
If you believe your horse is colicking, Latson and Franklin recommend taking note of the following:
- How recently has my horse passed manure, and what did the manure look like?
- What are my horse’s vital signs (temperature, pulse, and respiratory rate)?
- How long do the symptoms of colic pain (biting at the flanks, pawing, rolling, etc.) last?
- Has my horse eaten his grain or hay?
- How much water has my horse consumed?
- Does my horse have a history of colic and, if so, how did it resolve?
“These are questions to be asking yourself and to be investigating, as you’re trying to determine whether you’re going to call your veterinarian,” says Latson. “They are all things that are really, really critical for your veterinarian to know. When it gets to a point that your horse is fairly consistently showing some signs of colic pain or the periods that the horse is watching its belly or kicking at its belly or lying down and standing back up are getting shorter and shorter, that’s the time to call your veterinarian.”
The earlier the veterinarian sees a colic horse, says Latson, the better. It gives the owner peace of mind and the vet, who might end up visiting the farm to see that horse two or three times over the episode, a baseline.
The Physical Exam
“Equine practitioners use similar methods to diagnose colic,” says Latson. “My routine is fairly uniform across horses, and that’s by design, so that I don’t miss anything. For me, my eyes—simply watching the horse at first—and hands are as important a tool as anything I have in my truck in examining the horse. I’m going to garner a lot of information that we’re going to add to the horse’s history and start creating the case, the story, around this colic.”
Veterinarians look to answer several important questions with the equine physical exam:
- Is the colic obstructive or nonobstructive, meaning is the cause of colic an impaction, a twist, or a growth, for instance, or does it involve pain from ulcers, infections, or irritation?
- Does this case seem typical for this area, this horse’s breed, and his health history, or is it a little odd? For example, does the horse get a lot of flunixin meglumine (Banamine) because it has an orthopedic problem, and could that be causing stomach ulcers that mimic colic in horses?
- How are the horse’s teeth? Is something in the horse’s mouth affecting how well he can chew feed?
- What’s the horse’s heart rate? Latson says if the adult horse’s heart rate is over 60 (normal is 28-44 beats per minute) and he’s in persistent pain, that’s often an indication for colic surgery.
- Is there gas in the small or large intestine? Your veterinarian will listen to the gut with a stethoscope and might use an abdominal cavity ultrasound scan to determine this. In some areas of the country he or she might use radiographs, or X-rays, to look for accumulated ingested sand.
- Is there an abnormality that can be felt on the veterinarian’s rectal palpation of the horse?
“Maybe we’ll find something on that rectal examination that we can tie together with the physical exam and the ultrasound to uncover what is going on,” says Latson, and determine if it’s critical to address the colic case at the clinic or if it can be treated at the farm. “Then we can make a plan from there.”
That plan will depend on your ability to get horses with colic to the clinic in a timely manner, your willingness to commit to the expense of hospital care and even surgical treatment, and, of course, the horse’s condition. For instance, if the clinic is hours away and the horse is in considerable pain, some of the drugs necessary to control that pain on the trailer ride can later create complications under general anesthesia.
“It becomes a conversation of ‘How much can we do for this horse and how much should we do for this horse based on the types of colic we’re seeing?’” says Latson. “And, ‘Let’s start preparing now so that the next time you call the veterinarian, we already have a plan and we don’t have to wait another two to three hours to decide at the risk of the patient.’”
In other words, as that stopwatch ticks away, so do the harmful effects of the colic. The earlier you can get a colic horse advanced medical care or surgery that needs it, the better the outcome. Some conditions that cause violent types of colic, such as a twist in a broodmare’s large intestine shortly after foaling, can cause considerable damage to the equine gastrointestinal tract and need immediate surgical attention.
“Those mares’ colons, they have an hour, maybe 90 minutes of being twisted, before they’re done,” says Franklin. “It’s a very, very tough surgery and there are a number of times that the surgeons have to go into the abdominal cavity and consider removing parts of the equine intestinal tract that have died from a lack of blood supply. But there are limits to what the surgeons can remove.”
He points out that the veterinarian getting to horses early is just as important for human safety as it is for a horse’s health. “Horses can get quite painful, violently painful, thrashing about,” he says. “They can hurt themselves, hurt their handlers, and they’re not trying to be malicious, they’re just in that severe abdominal pain.”
Preparation, Communication, and Tough Decisions
Successfully managing a case of colic in horses often comes down to preparation—knowing what you could and would do if it happens—and communication with your veterinarian, early and often. Tell your veterinarian about the clinical signs and your willingness and ability to refer your horse for intensive care or colic surgery.
“Ask questions, ask, ask, ask questions,” says Latson. “If this is the first time you’ve been through colic with your horse, please ask anything you don’t understand, because as the owner you’re the advocate for the horse and know the animal best. If we’re asking you questions that seem redundant or simple or don’t seem to make sense, there’s probably a reason behind asking those questions, so ask us why. I think it really opens up that conversation between you and your veterinarian to create the relationship and the best outcome for your horse.”
It’s also important to think through your limits for managing a colic before it happens. For example, would you want to try to resolve it with the veterinarian at home and, if so, when or how would you make the call on the horse’s quality of life and likelihood to recover from colic? “Those are tough, tough questions to ask, but I think as the advocate for the horse as your partner and your companion, those are really valuable questions to be asking ourselves as soon as a colic episode starts,” says Latson.
“I’ve seen 30-year-old horses get operated on and have half of their intestines removed, huge intensive care bills, and that was the right decision for that owner,” says Franklin. “I’ve also had people that had a 22-year-old retired horse that needed the same operation and we elected to put it down.”
“It can be a real emotional ride,” says Latson, “and this is where the relationship with your veterinarian and your trust in each other for your horse’s benefit becomes really important in a case of colic that started at 10:00 this morning with just a simple look back at the flank.”