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Colic – The Different Types of Colic

Colic – The Different Types of Colic

Colic…that word that fills horse owners with dread! However, it is actually a relatively common disorder affecting the horse and can occur at any time for a plethora of reasons.

Colic, is not a specific disorder, but instead a general term describing ‘abdominal discomfort’. Although colic usually occurs from discomfort originating from the gastro-intestinal tract, it can also be due to pain from other abdominal organs such as the kidney, liver or uterus, this is termed ‘false colic’. In addition ‘tying up’ (exertional rhabdomyolysis), laminitis and even foot abscesses can incur similar symptoms.

The Different Types

As discussed colic covers a number of abdominal disturbances but it is often discussed as either ‘medical’ i.e. that which can be corrected without the need for surgery, and ‘surgical’ that requires surgery to correct.

Spasmodic/Idipathic: One of the most common types of colic that we come across in practice. Abnormal contractions of the bowel, often described as ‘overactive guts’ results in painful contractions. It can be due to a number of factors including diet alterations, changes in the grass, recent worming and even things such as weather or stressful situations. It usually responds well to anti-spasmodic drugs such as Hyoscine Butylbromide (‘Buscopan’) sometimes in combination with a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory such as Phenylbutazone (‘Bute’).

Impactions: Usually, but not exclusively affecting the large intestine, impactions are firm blockages of food. They usually result from horses eating bedding, having a reduced fluid intake or reduced movement – therefore this is a type of colic to look out for when horses are on box rest but can also occur at other times. Generally impactions can be corrected medically by administration of fluids, either via a nasogastric tube or intravenously (‘dripping’) combined with pain relief. However, more severe impactions can require surgery.

Displacements, Torsions and Strangulations: When a unit of bowel travels to an abnormal location within the abdomen we refer to it as displaced. Torsions occur when the gut twists on itself (often referred to as a ‘twisted gut) and strangulation occurs if the blood supply to a portion of gut gets cut off. These are relatively uncommon types of colic but are very serious. Occasionally displacements can be corrected medically but severe displacements, and all strangulations and torsions require surgery to correct.

Next – What to do if you suspect colic …


With thanks to Merete Hass BSc (Hons) BVSc MRCVS, Equine Vet at Hampton Veterinary Centre, Malpas, Cheshire

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