How will I know if my horse has colic? What are the typical signs?
Colic is one of those horse happenings that sends shivers along spines. Colic is the general term for abdominal pain, and technically it's also a sign. Basically something in your horse's digestive system is not righ. Colic is such a huge unknown, with so many different possibilities, signs, and outcomes. Add to that the complexity of dozens of colic causes, along with different horse personalities, and you end up with seemingly millions of things to worry about.
Only someone who knows this horse can tell you if he's in trouble or just snoozing. If he was getting up and down and up and down, it's easier to tell that something's wrong.
Two things are certain when dealing with horses and colics. One, the seemingly mild cases of an upset tummy can sometimes be deadly, and the seemingly obvious case of colic might be totally minor. Two, because of number one, you must involve your Veterinarian early and only administer meds after talking to them. Pain medications make an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan difficult.
So - what to look for? And just be warned that many of these things on the list also look like totally normal horse behaviors. This is where knowing your horse’s normal routine and vital signs comes in really handy.
Signs of colic:
- Pawing the ground. Many horses do this at certain times out of habit, so learn to differentiate between demand for food/attention and pain. Some horses paw before rolling, some paw at gates, some paw while eating, some paw because they can.
- Circling as if to lay down. Sometimes they just can’t get comfortable and will try and find the best spot and best side to lay on, but never go down.
You need to know your horse's baseline temp, pulse, and respiration.
- Rolling. Again, a common behavior. In colic, your horse is trying to relieve pain and pressure. In normal horse behavior, your horse is trying to get the kinks out, cover himself with earthy smell, scratch his back. For more tidbits of info on rolling, read this.
- Looking at the flank. As if to say what the heck is going on back there?
- Belly kicking. It's your job to decide if it's colic, or if the flies are just so annoying.
- Laying down, sometimes getting up, sometimes laying down again.
- Not eating. Although, many a horse will want to eat during a colic episode, which is generally not recommended by Vets. Another great reason to check in with your Vet to make sure if food is OK or not. Any horse that is not eating is a major emergency.
- Not drinking. The behavior is a sign, and you can check for hydration by feeling your horse’s gums - pinching the skin isn’t good enough. This hydration test tells the Vet much about the inner workings of his GI system. For more on dehydration, read this.
- Changes in manure output - volume, frequency, texture, hardness, diarrhea, etc. After dealing with an impaction last year, the manure was getting dryer, in smaller balls, and less frequent the days leading up to the horse showing outward signs of pain. His poops told us days before he did! More on manure here.
- Changes in urine output - many horses in pain will urinate frequently and in small amounts to try and relieve pressure. Lots of info on normal horse urine here, so you know what to look for.
In pain or smelling something funny?
- Flehmen response. Sometimes for smelling, sometimes for pain. You guessed it, more on the flehmen response here.
- Abnormal gut sounds - do you know what’s normal for your horse? Sometimes gut sounds get extra loud with colic, sometimes they disappear with colic. How to learn your horse's gut sounds from this article.
- High pulse rate. Knowing normal TPR for your horse is mandatory if you and your Vet are going to determine what’s abnormal for your horse. This is a known sign of your horse being in pain.
- Excessive sweating.
- Immobility or restlessness. (Super helpful, right?)
Basically speaking, you need to have your horse memorized and be able to spot even the most subtle cues that something is wrong. It’s totally OK and even encouraged to call your Vet at any time if you suspect colic. Then you can begin to formulate a treatment plan. I would much rather ask a question than let my horse suffer.
If you want to learn more about what information to gather if you suspect colic, head on over to this page for a checklist of action items as you talk to your Vet.