In my last piece, I looked at how the vet will examine a horse with colic. Following this, and using all the information from the history and workup, he or she has to decide if the colic is Medical or Surgical. The terms are more or less self-explanatory: a medical colic can be managed with drugs, while a surgical colic needs emergency surgery.
As a rule of thumb, 9/10 colics are medical, and can almost always be managed on the yard.
So, here are the common causes of colic that we see in the UK1 :
1) Spasmodic Colic. This is probably the commonest, and perhaps the least understood; I estimate about 80% of Medical colics are Spasmodic. Spasmodic colic can be caused by a stressful event, mild dehydration, or be genuinely idiopathic (i.e. we don’t know what causes it!). It can also be caused by severe tapeworm burdens. In a Spasmodic Colic, a section of the gut goes into a spasm, preventing anything from moving past it. It can be acutely painful, but usually responds really well to management with drugs. For any horse that has two or more bouts of spasmodic colic, I’d always recommend a tapeworm blood test to make sure it isn’t part of the problem!
2) Impaction Colic. This is more common in some management systems – it is pretty rare, for example, in horses who live on grass. In these cases, the food in the large intestine dries out a bit too much, and turns into a putty-like material. It then gets stuck, typically at one of the 180- degree turns in the Large Colon. It’s also strongly associated with moderate dehydration – as a horse gets dehydrated, he will move water out of the gut in order to keep up his circulating blood volume. This is a clever trick, meaning a horse can survive levels of dehydration that would kill a human. However, if the water isn’t replaced, and he’s been eating dry hay, his gut contents can become so dry they cause an impaction. This is why, many years ago, bran mash and Epsom salts were fed after hard work – both are good ways of rehydrating the colon and Caecum contents.
3) Gut displacements and entraptions. These are a bit of a mixture – some are medical, some are surgical, some look surgical but aren’t, and some can be fixed medically but keep coming back so surgery is eventually needed. What many people don’t realise is that the guts are in constant motion. Occasionally, a loop of intestine goes “wandering around” inside the abdomen, and gets stuck behind something else (for example, into a little gap between the spleen and the kidney). These can often only be diagnosed by rectal exam, and can feel really confusing, where nothing seems to be exactly where it should be! Each case has to be treated on its merits, and many can be resolved by lunging – presumably because jiggling everything around helps the intestines to fall back into their proper places! Personally, however, my inclination is generally to refer the horse as a possible surgical case……………….