Colic – a Pain in the Gut

Colic – a Pain in the Gut

By Mark Andrews

No-one wants to see their horse get colic. But what can be done to avoid it?

Horses are “trickle feeders”, best suited to eating small amounts of food throughout the day. Their intestines are full of bacteria and protozoa that digest their food for them. Sudden changes in diet upset these micro-organisms. This can lead to altered gut activity and colic. Access to lush pasture is thought to be the most common cause of spasmodic colic. Feeding hard feed also increases the risk of colic. To minimise the threat of colic, all changes in diet should be made over a few days.

Horses should have unlimited access to drinking water. If they do not drink enough, their gut contents may dry out and cause a blockage.

Horses that are being rested after injury should not be bedded on straw. They may eat their bedding and become impacted. Avoid this by bedding on inedible material such as shavings or paper.

The benefit of effective worm control was demonstrated over twenty years ago. Studs on which the horses were wormed regularly had fewer cases of colic than studs with inadequate worm control.

Small redworms are the most common cause of parasite-related colic. Modern worm treatments are effective – but there is a growing danger of resistance, especially to the benzimidazole group of wormers. Don’t forget that by picking up the droppings you may be able to reduce the number of times you need to worm. Ask your vet about an appropriate worming program.

For many years, tapeworms were thought to be harmless. Now we know that they are associated with several types of colic. Many horses are infected. Most only have a few tapeworms and so are not at great risk. The aim is to identify heavily infected individuals and treat them. A blood test is now available that can identify horses that are carrying a heavy tapeworm infection.

However careful you are you cannot prevent or predict all cases of colic. It is important to keep a watchful eye on your horse and make sure that you spot colic early. If your horse does get colic, get an experienced equine vet to check him over as soon as possible. The good news is that most horses with colic will respond to medical treatment. A few will have a serious problem that will require an operation. Prompt referral to a centre with surgical facilities will greatly increase the chances of a full recovery.

Copyright 2005 by Mark Andrews / Equine Science Update. Mark Andrews, an experienced equine veterinarian, is author of The Foaling Guide. He also runs the Equine Science Update website, where you can learn about the latest advances in horse science. You can keep up to date with a free newsletter – go to

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