The list of causes for colic is endless. Sometimes I say it could be due to a cloud moving across the sky in a particular way…meaning it could be anything.
The most common type of colic I see is gas (spasmodic) colic. These tend to resolve quickly, especially with the help Banamine (anti-inflammatory). Most of the time, to the frustration of many clients and equine effianados, the cause of a particular episode remains a mystery. While spasmodic colics can strike at any moment, I see more cases during the changes in seasons and during drastic weather/temperature fluctuations. Hottest days and coldest nights.
Colic, simply defined, is abdominal pain. Pain associated with the gastrointestinal tract (the gut) can be due to gas (we all know what gas cramps feel like!), shifting of part of the tract into an abnormal position and therefore displaced, imbalance of natural GI bugs, diarrhea, impactions, twists in the gut or due to other diseases in the abdomen (tumors, infection). While 90% of the colics I see are simple gas colics…the past 2 weeks have really thrown a statistical curve ball.
Last year, I had 3 cases of colic that were due to impactions in the gut. Impactions can be complete (nothing is passing through the clogged pipe) or partial (mostly just liquid passing through, sometime small amount of manure). In the past 2 weeks, I have diagnosed 7 impactions. Usually, I see impactions in the fall. This year, the transition to spring definitely brought in the new.
Impactions (basically something in the colon or small intestines that impedes flow, like poorly digested/broken down feed material) can occur anywhere in the GI tract, but particular parts of the horse’s anatomy predispose certain areas to become blocked. These are areas where a large diameter is going to a small diameter, or where the gut suddenly takes a hairpin turn.
The most common location is called the pelvic flexure, and accounts for 5 of my 7 recent cases. I think one of the most astounding and stressful aspects of impactions is that they can go either way…as in, some can be managed fairly easily in the field, some may be fatal without surgical intervention. Sometimes, even surgical intervention is not enough.
Working the Cases
Of my 7 cases, 3 were referred to our local hospital for surgical or intensive management. For the two cases that did not have a referral option (finances, owner choice etc), one made a full recovery over the course of a week. Unfortunately, the other one had to be euthanized within 12 the following 12 hours.
All of the impactions were diagnosed by performing a rectal palpation. After identifying the impaction, I assessed how impressionable it is. Some impactions are so firm that I cannot make an impression or indent (feels like a baseball). Others, I can almost mold with my hand (like dough). The more impressionable the impaction, the more likely we will be able to resolve the issue in the field…which becomes a labor-intensive endeavor for vets and owners alike!
After identifying where the impaction is, how impressionable it is and how large it is, the next assessment is comfort. If pain cannot be managed, referral becomes the next avenue. Otherwise, the mainstays of treatment in the field is tubing (passing tube from nostril to stomach) in order to administer fluids/laxatives/electrolytes…sometimes requiring 3-4 return farm visits a day for 2-3 days. Discomfort is managed with NSAIDs, and horses are held off feed until they are passing manure and recheck rectal palpation confirms that impaction is gone. In some cases, IV fluids are necessary.
Additional Info for the Curious at Heart
Vetstream has a great client hand-out about colic that I have included below…for those who want to learn more or brush up on the colic basics.