Abdominal Colic in Adults

Updated November 21, 2016

The term colic in horses refers to any type of abdominal distress and encompasses a number of conditions. Colic can result from problems within the gastrointestinal tract, including the stomach, large and small intestines, and the small colon/rectum or from issues involving other abdominal organs such as the liver, kidneys or spleen. Colic is the No. 1 natural cause of death in adult horses.


Signs of colic vary depending on the severity of the condition. In mild colic cases, horses may swish their tails, lie down or paw. As the pain of colic becomes more intense, a horse might try to roll or strike at its abdomen. Another key sign of colic is sweating, which will become excessive as the colic progresses. Violent pain accompanies a severe case of colic and the rolling will become uncontrollable .

Clinical signs include a rise in temperature and heart rate, and a lack of bowel sounds.


Unfortunately, there are many causes of colic in adult horses. Causes include obstruction, strangulation, inflammation and injury.

Obstruction of the intestines can result from feed, sand, enteroliths (mineralised stones), foreign objects, displacement of the intestine, and even cancer.

Strangulation encompasses a number of intestinal torsions; it can be a twisted section of intestine, entrapment of the intestines in other abdominal structures or diaphragmatic hernia, a displacement of the intestines into the chest cavity.

Inflammation results from infection from bacteria or parasites, or the presence of toxins, such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), eating too much grain, heavy metals or blister beetles, which are found in some hay.


All colics can be loosely classified into three types: intestinal dysfunction, intestinal accidents and enteritis.

Intestinal dysfunction results when the horse's gastrointestinal tract is not functioning correctly. Impaction, which also known as obstruction, paralysis of the intestines--food materials not being pushed through--and excessive gas fall into this category, which is the most common type of colic.

Intestinal accidents require emergency surgery when the intestines are torn or injured. Some types of strangulation are classified as intestinal accidents.

Enteritis includes infections, inflammation and disease.


Colics can be treated medically and surgically. When colic is suspected, a veterinarian should be consulted immediately.

Mild colics are treated with NSAIDs and fluids. Often, mineral oil or other laxatives will be introduced through nasal tubing. These treatments can loosen obstructions and get the intestines moving. When sand colic is suspected, psyllium will be used to move the sand out of the gut. Walking the horse can also help alleviate intestinal discomfort although no more than 15 minutes is recommended).

When colic pain is severe, strangulation is suspected, or medical treatments are giving the horse no relief, emergency surgery may be required. Early treatment of twists or torsions is necessary as these conditions can be nearly 100 per cent fatal if left untreated too long. Surgery can be effective at correcting intestinal problems but recovery can be a long process.


Only obstructions caused by ascarids (round worms), feed, and sand are preventable. However, sound management practices can lessen the chance of colic. A balanced diet and regular feeding can prevent wolfing food without proper chewing, a common cause of obstruction. Likewise, regular floating (grinding the sharp edges) of teeth ensures horses are not swallowing large chunks of food.

Other important elements of proper health for adult horses include a program of regular deworming and gradually transitions from one type of feed to another.

Finally, unrestricted access to cool, clean water is critical to intestinal health.

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