What Is Colic in Animals?

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Colic is used to describe abdominal pain. Colic is common in horses, but it may occur in other animals such as llamas, cows, cats and dogs. Colic can be deadly if not treated quickly. It is very painful due to the stretching of the intestinal walls or cutoff of blood supply. Animal caretakers should be aware of the symptoms and risk factors associated with colic and should maintain an environment that discourages colic occurrence. When colic is suspected, it is important to contact a veterinarian immediately.


The most common type of colic is spasmodic colic. This type is also known as gas colic and occurs when liquids, or gas, build up in the intestine. This build up results in a swollen intestine. Strangulating colic, of either the small or large intestine, results from a food buildup, blockage and gas. The intestine becomes twisted and the blood supply is cutoff. As a result, tissue dies. Nonstrangulating colic, of both the large or small intestine, occurs when blood vessels tear away and result in inflammation and potential blockage, retention of gas and fluids. Large colon impaction is another type of colic. In this case food becomes blocked in the large intestine.


Symptoms may include a loud, gurgling stomach and diarrhea, or the complete absence of stomach sounds and cessation of bowel movement. An animal with colic may have a distended stomach that is hard to the touch. A horse experiencing colic may bite or kick at its stomach and want to lay down. Loss of appetite and listlessness are other symptoms. The animal may arch its back in pain, become restless or cry.

Risk Factors

A change in normal living environment can lead to colic. The stress of moving a horse from one stable to another is a common cause of colic. Another risk factor is a sudden change in the animal's level of activity. A change in the normal food source, for example, change in the type of hay or grain, may also be an issue. Animal owners should not combine potential trigger events and should watch carefully for any signs of colic after a change is instituted. Internal parasites may also lead to a bout of colic.


Keeping animals active helps prevent colic. Horses should not be stalled more than 50 percent of the time and should receive regular exercise. Regular exercise keeps the muscles working and encourages the animal to drink more water, which prevents dehydration, one cause of colic. However, the animal should not be allowed to drink in excess after exercise. Maintaining a regular feeding schedule and providing clean, fresh food and water also helps prevent colic. Horses should never be allowed to eat moldy hay, which is common in round bales, and should never be overfed. One option is to feed extruded food. Extruded foods take longer for a horse to eat and may minimize the occurrence of colic. Horses should also be on a regular internal pest control program to minimize colic risk.


At the first signs of colic, it is necessary to seek the help of a veterinarian. Simple gas colic due to a change in food may be treated with a new diet, mineral oil or medication. Impacted intestines are often treated with intravenous fluids. More severe forms of colic may require surgery. A veterinarian needs to be consulted early to determine the best course of treatment.


Animals who have previously had colic are likely to have another occurrence. The National Animal Health Monitoring System's (NAHMS) Equine 1998 study indicates that colic was the second most common cause of equine death in 1997.

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