Colic Awareness Month at KEC - What is Colic?

May is ‘Colic Awareness Month’ at Kilmore Equine Clinic

Over the next few weeks we will be writing some short articles to help the equine community on issues surrounding colic. 


Part 1

What is Colic?

Colic is a relatively common disorder of the horse’s digestive system as is termed more as a clinic sign, than a condition or diagnosis. The true definition of colic is simply “abdominal pain,” and refers to a condition of severe abdominal discomfort characterised by certain signs. As horse owners the signs which will grab your attention are listed below. Depending on the severity of the abdominal pain, all signs below or only a few may be present, as well as, having a scale from minimally painful to moderate to severely painful.

Observational Signs from a Distance 

📍 Depression, dull mentation
📍 Lack of appetite
📍 Pawing at the ground
📍 Kicking or biting at abdomen
📍 Repeated rolling &/or lying down 
📍 Increased sweating 
📍 Muscle tremors 

The Horse’s Clinical Signs 

📍 Absence or reduced digestive sounds
📍 Rapid breathing (>30 breathes per min)
📍 Increased pulse rate (>60 beats per min)
📍 Poor hydration – gums dry and tacky, increased skin tenting on shoulder

What causes Colic?

There are different types of colic, which may be caused by certain conditions, management or sometimes by reasons that are unknown. The most common causes of colic are sudden changes in feed, gorging of feed, reduced water intake/dehydration, recent deworming, eating/grazing close to the ground which increases sand intake, feeding mouldy feeds and not having regular dentals performed. Geriatric horses are more likely develop lipomas (fatty benign tumours) that strangulate the intestines. Horses that are at risk of gastric ulcers and being fed a high grain, low fibre diet, are at an increased risk to colics. 

The most common type of colic seen is the acute spasmodic/gas colic. It is seen in all ages and breeds of horses. It results from excessive gas fermentation, which may be caused by sudden feed or weather changes and overeating. The majority of these colics are able to be treated in the field through sedation, pain relief and addressing any hydration issues early. 

Impaction colic is the second most common colic seen in the field. This is caused by having a poor dental and deworming routines and severe dehydration. The constant ingestion of sand/dirt due to drought conditions and grazing close to the ground also increases the risk of impactions. Impactions may be full (no faeces produced) or partial (loose faeces may pass around it) in the intestinal tract. The main sites for a blockage are the pelvic flexure, small and large colon. Some of these impaction colics may be treated and respond to field medical treatment; immediate rehydration, pain relief and sedation, and this may need to be repeated several times or it may also be a surgery case.


The other types of colic normally need to be treated medically, and then followed by surgical correction. These include volvulus (twisting around self) and strangulation of intestines, entrapment (where intestine become trapped) and intussusception (where the intestine telescopes onto itself). These are very serious conditions and need to be assessed quickly as the blood supply to the intestinal tissue is compromised. 

As for colic prevention, it is important to have cool fresh water available at all times, change diets over time, do not let horses gorge or overeat and have a regular deworm and dental programs. If horses are kept in dirt/sand paddocks with reduce fibre (grass) and/or eating close to the ground, it is important to provide a once a month treatment of palatable fibre source in the feed to reduce the build-up of sand and dirt in the intestines. On hot days or when horses are worked hard and they may have reduced water intake, it is important to give them electrolytes which will help keep them drinking and increase their water intake and balance the fluids in their body.

We hope you enjoyed this article - stay tuned for next week for the latest article on ‘How to Diagnose Colic’

As part of Colic Month we are running a ‘Colic Kit’ promotion. To find out more, click the picture below

Luke Wells-Smith