Clinical Signs of Colic in the Horse: Book Excerpt

Clinical signs of colic are those changes in behavior or activity that indicate abdominal pain.

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Clinical signs of colic are those changes in behavior or activity that indicate abdominal pain. Although these signs are relatively universal, individual horses may exhibit slightly different cues and different intensities to the same causes of colic. For instance, a colicky foal often rolls onto its back with its feet in the air. Some older horses and perhaps certain breeds may be more stoic than others.

Such horses may experience abdominal pain and show few obvious signs of this pain other than depression or unwillingness to move. Overall, no one knows when a horse is behaving abnormally better than an owner who is well acquainted with his/her horse’s normal behavior. Such individuals may pick up on early or subtle behavioral changes that could indicate a problem. Changes that owners often recognize early may include increased recumbency, failure to finish grain or hay, reduced activity either in the stall or in the pasture, increased time spent lying down, abnormal stance, increased time required for feed consumption, reduced fecal production, dry or loose feces, poor hair coat, and weight loss.

These changes are important to share with your veterinarian, who does not have the benefit of seeing these day-to-day changes in your horse.  Therefore, the owner serves as the eyes and ears to the episodes that have prompted veterinary intervention. Your veterinarian can use this information to help evaluate your horse.  As important as this information is, you, as the owner, need to realize that these subtle changes in your horse are not specific to any one condition.  Therefore, these signs do not necessarily mean that your horse is experiencing colic.

Your veterinarian will perform a complete examination that may seem to include things that do not focus on the intestinal system.  This is the correct approach since these signs can indicate problem(s) in areas other than the intestinal tract. During the examination your veterinarian will also look for evidence of previous colic episodes such as skin abrasions, swollen and reddened skin around the eyes and over the hips (from trauma due to rolling), presence or absence of feces in the stall, scrapes left in the stall floor bedding (from pawing), and scrapes or hair found on the walls of the stall that may be left from a horse that has been cast or otherwise trying to alleviate discomfort

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Written by:

Brad Bentz, VMD, Dipl. ACVIM, ABVP, ACVECC, owns Bluegrass Equine Performance and Internal Medicine in Lexington, Ky., where he specializes in advanced internal medicine and critical care focused on helping equine patients recuperate at home. He’s authored numerous books, articles, and papers about horse health and currently serves as commission veterinarian for the Kentucky State Racing Commission.

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