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Colic is a term used to describe abdominal (tummy) pain, which in horses is usually caused by problems in the gastrointestinal tract. There are over 70 different types of intestinal problems that can cause colic symptoms, ranging from mild to severe. As well as gastrointestinal problems, colic signs can be seen with other conditions, including; problems with the urinary tract, tying up, laminitis and post-foaling – these are known as ‘false colic’.

Colic is one of the most common causes of death in horses; however the prognosis today is far better than it once was. This is a result of better diagnosis and treatment as well as developments with drugs and surgical treatments. The early diagnosis and surgical treatment of more serious cases is one of the most important factors in giving horses the best chance of survival following colic surgery.

The clinical signs associated with colic depend on the level of the pain, and include;


  • Lip curling
  • Flank watching
  • Pawing


  • Lying for long periods of time
  • Repeatedly getting up and down
  • Posturing to urinate frequently


  • Violently rolling
  • Sweating
  • High respiratory rate

If colic is suspected prompt veterinary treatment is required. Around 90% of colic cases can be treated medically, this can include pain killers (e.g. bute, flunixin, metacam), oral fluids, motility modifiers (e.g. buscopan) and gentle exercise. The remaining 10% of colic cases require surgery, which if to provide a successful outcome must be identified and referred to a surgical facility as soon as possible. As a practice the majority of our surgical colics are referred to Leahurst Equine Hospital for surgery where they have an 80% recovery rate (survival to discharge home). It is important that several factors are considered prior to surgery such as the cost, prognosis and aftercare. Horses require around 4 months of box rest following colic surgery.

There are several things that we use in order to establish if a case of colic will require surgery. These include; findings on rectal exam, the presence of gastric reflux, a persistently high heart rate and no or little response to pain relief.

Horses that show stereotypical behaviour or have a history of colic are at greater risk of developing colic. In order to reduce the likelihood of colic in your horse there are steps you can take as an owner, such as;

  • Providing a supply of fresh water
  • Making any changes to the feeding routine slowly over 2-3 weeks
  • Allowing access to turnout
  • Providing appropriate worming control
  • Ensuring regular (at least annual) dental treatment

When examining a horse for colic we will obtain a full history form the owner/groom before completing a thorough clinical exam and rectal examination (under sedation for the safety of both the horse and vet). In some cases further diagnostic tests may be required in order to provide more information on the possible type/cause of colic and the most appropriate treatment. These include passing a nasogastric tube (stomach tube), abdominocentesis (belly tap), abdominal scans and blood analysis.

Colic is one of the most common emergencies seen in horses. A vet should be called as soon as colic is suspected for the best possible outcome.

Download the "Colic" information sheet

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