Colic.  The very word makes you shudder. It seems to happen at any time and place and to any horse. As common as colic is, it remains misconstrued and lacks singular explanation. Thousands of dollars have been invested in colic studies, yet it is still an offender of even the healthiest horses.

Taber's Medical Dictionary defines colic as a spasm of any soft or hollow organ, such as the abdomen, that is accompanied by pain (F.A. Davis Co. 1989). The American Association of Equine Practitioners classifies colic in horses into three groups; intestinal dysfunctions, intestinal accidents and enteritis or ulcerations (please see side bar).

Classifying Colic

There are a myriad of causes, but most colics fall under these three groups; Intestinal Dysfunction - This is the most common category and simply means the horse's bowels are not working properly. It includes such things as gas distention, impaction, spasms and paralysis.

Intestinal Accidents - These occur less frequently and include displacements, torsions and hernias, whereby sections of the intestine become trapped or pinched in body cavities. These almost always require emergency surgery.

Enteritis or Ulcerations - These are colics related to inflammations, infections and lesions within the digestive tract. They can be caused by numerous factors including stress, disease, salmonellosis and parasites.

Colic appears to be preceded by many complicated factors, and moreover is a major cause of disease and death. You are forlorned; your hands are tied behind your back as you watch colic spontaneously attack the horses you have so diligently tried to keep healthy.

There are many signs of colic including repeatedly lying down and getting up or attempting to do so, rolling, sitting in a dog-like position or lying on the back. Talk to your veterinarian about other signs of colic.

But are you truly helpless? Can you do something to prevent colic from affecting your horses?

According to a colic study by Dr. Noah Cohen from Texas A & M University, there are preventative measures you can take to avoid colic occurrence. This unique study went beyond the laboratory and into private practices throughout Texas to determine whether or not management factors influence the onset of colic.

"Studies at veterinary hospitals represent only a small, selected subset of the general equine population," Dr. Cohen comments. "We conducted a study to investigate the cases of equine colic treated of actual, practicing veterinarians." Researchers wanted to identify factors related to medical history, husbandry and health management that might induce the chance of colic in a horse. They evaluated a variety of situations including logistics of farm environment, stabling conditions, feed management, health and dental care, and recent transport or change in diet and activity. Eighty-two veterinarians provided data from 821 horses with colic for specific management factors for a 15 month period.

The participating veterinarians were asked to record various data from colic cases. Colic was defined as a horse giving signs of intra-abdominal pain. They were then asked to record the same data for a non-colic case (such as a laceration or lameness treatment) that immediately followed the call to the colic case. The latter data was used as a "control" to the colic results to obviate any seasonal bias in choosing the comparison population.

The results are unequivocal. Horses with a history of colic are six times more likely to develop colic again. Horses with previous abdominal surgery are five times more likely to develop colic. However, these antecedents are non-alterable risk factors.

Three management factors are found to influence colic onset. Change in diet seems to significantly increase the illness. Horses that had a change in stabling conditions two weeks prior to the time of examination have a higher probability of colicking also. In addition, a change in activity tends to induce the chance of colic onset.

"A recent change in diet is the most important management factor that predisposes horses to developing colic," Dr. Cohen notes. "In fact, having a recent change in diet appears to double the risk of colic. However, because the study was so extensive, we were unable to examine detailed dietary practices that predispose horses to colic. We are seeking funding for these studies that will provide specific, practical suggestions for horse owners."

So if you avoid changing your horse's feed, you'll never have a colicky horse — right? No. Though not found to be associated with colic, sound management factors such as deworming, dentistry and vaccination should always be integrated by every horse owner.

"We believe that preventive medicine is essential for decreasing the burden of disease in horses," Dr. Cohen adds. "Good, consistent management has important health and economic consequences."

For more information on colic, please contact the American Association of Equine Practitioners for a brochure on understanding colic, the digestive tract and its function, at; AAEP 4075 Iron Works Pike Lexington, KY 40511 (606) 233-0147


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