Strangulation Colic in Horses: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment


Strangulation colic in horses is a severe and life-threatening condition that occurs when a portion of the intestine twists on itself, cutting off the blood supply to the affected area. This can lead to rapid death of the intestinal wall and requires immediate veterinary attention.

There are several different types of colic that can affect horses, but strangulation colic is particularly dangerous due to the risk of intestinal necrosis and sepsis. Horses with strangulation colic typically show all the unusual signs of abdominal pain, such as pawing at the ground, looking at their sides, and rolling. They may also have an elevated heart rate, abnormal breathing, and sweating. If left untreated, strangulation colic can quickly progress to a life-threatening situation.

It is important for horse owners to be aware of the signs of strangulation colic and to know when to call the vet. With prompt and appropriate treatment, many horses can recover and return to their normal riding routines. However, the prognosis depends on the severity of the condition and how quickly it is diagnosed and treated.

vet treating strangulation colic in horses

Understanding Strangulation Colic in Horses

The symptoms of strangulation colic, also known as torsion colic, can vary depending on the severity and location of the obstruction. Horses with this condition may experience severe abdominal pain, restlessness, sweating, and a rapid heartbeat. They may also show signs of depression, lethargy, and have a decreased appetite.

Strangulation colic is often caused by a displacement of the intestine, which can occur when the horse’s digestive system is not functioning properly. Horses that are fed a high-grain diet or that have a history of colic are more susceptible to this condition. Other risk factors include age, breed, and gender.

Treatment for strangulation colic typically involves surgery to remove the obstruction and repair any damage to the intestine. In some cases, the affected portion of the intestine may need to be removed. The success of surgery depends on the severity of the obstruction and the overall health of the horse.

Prevention is key when it comes to strangulation colic. Horse owners should take steps to ensure their horses are fed a healthy diet, have access to clean water, and are given regular exercise. It is also important to monitor horses for signs of colic and seek veterinary attention immediately if any symptoms are observed.

Causes of Strangulation Colic

Strangulation colic in horses is caused by a variety of issues, including dietary factors, physical activity, and genetic predisposition.

Dietary Factors

Dietary factors can play a significant role in the development of strangulation colic. Horses that consume large amounts of sand or dirt can develop a blockage in their intestines, which can lead to strangulation colic. Additionally, horses that are fed low-quality hay or have a sudden change in their diet can develop impactions.

Physical Activity

Physical activity can also contribute to the development of strangulation colic. Horses that engage in sudden, strenuous exercise after a period of inactivity are at risk. Additionally, horses that are subjected to long periods of standing or are confined to stalls for extended periods can develop colic due to the lack of movement.

Genetic Predisposition

Some horses may be genetically predisposed to developing strangulation colic. Certain breeds, such as Thoroughbreds and Arabians, are more susceptible to colic than others. Additionally, horses that have a history of colic in their family may be at an increased risk of developing the condition.

More From Savvy Horsewoman:  Tips to Keep Your Senior Equine Warm This Winter

Often it is difficult to determine the exact cause of the condition in an individual horse. However, by being aware of the various risk factors, horse owners can take steps to minimize the risk of their horses developing strangulation colic.

Symptoms of Strangulation Colic

These are the symptoms horse owners should watch for that may indicate a twisted gut, displacement, or impaction.

Physical Signs

Horses experiencing strangulation colic may exhibit the following physical signs:

  • Looking at sides
  • Biting or kicking flank
  • Pawing the ground or air
  • Laying down and/or rolling
  • Fecal balls small, dry, or not produced
  • Poor appetite
  • Change in drinking behavior
  • Increased heart rate
  • Abnormal breathing
  • Sweating
  • Restlessness

Behavioral Changes

In addition to the physical signs, horses with strangulation colic may exhibit behavioral changes that indicate pain or discomfort. These changes can include:

  • Ears back or loose and drooping to the sides
  • Curled lip
  • Closed eyes
  • Tense body
  • Irritation or anxious expression
  • Teeth grinding

It is important to note that not all horses will exhibit all of these symptoms, and some horses may show symptoms that are not listed here. If a horse is exhibiting any of these symptoms, it is important to seek veterinary care immediately. Early intervention can be critical in the successful treatment of strangulation colic.

Diagnosis of Strangulation Colic

Diagnosis of this type of colic is crucial for a successful treatment outcome. In this section, we will discuss the clinical examination and diagnostic imaging techniques used to diagnose strangulation colic in horses.

Clinical Examination

The clinical examination is the first step in the diagnostic process. The veterinarian will assess the horse’s vital signs, including heart rate, respiratory rate, and temperature. They will also perform a thorough physical examination, including auscultation of the abdomen to check for abnormal bowel sounds.

During the clinical examination, the veterinarian will look for signs of pain, such as pawing, rolling, or kicking at the abdomen. They will also evaluate the horse’s hydration status and assess the color and consistency of the manure.

Diagnostic Imaging

Diagnostic imaging techniques are used to confirm the diagnosis of strangulation colic. The most common diagnostic imaging techniques used in horses with colic are abdominal ultrasound and radiography.

Abdominal ultrasound is a non-invasive imaging technique that uses sound waves to create images of internal organs. Ultrasound can be used to identify the presence of fluid or gas in the abdomen, which can indicate a twisted or obstructed intestine.

Radiography, also known as X-ray, is another diagnostic imaging technique used to diagnose strangulation colic. Radiographs can be used to identify the presence of gas or fecal material in the intestine, as well as any abnormalities in the position or shape of the intestine.

In some cases, exploratory surgery may be necessary to diagnose and treat strangulation colic. This procedure involves making an incision in the abdomen to visualize the internal organs and identify any twisted or obstructed intestines.

Treatment Options for Strangulation Colic

In most cases, surgical intervention is necessary to resolve the problem. However, medical management may also be used in some cases.

More From Savvy Horsewoman:  My Favorite Horse Bits (and Why I Use Them)

Medical Management

Medical management of strangulation colic aims to stabilize the horse and manage the pain while waiting for surgical intervention. The following treatments may be used:

  • Pain management: Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are commonly used to manage pain in horses with colic.
  • Fluid therapy: Intravenous fluids may be administered to correct dehydration and electrolyte imbalances.
  • Nasogastric intubation: A nasogastric tube may be passed into the horse’s stomach to relieve any gas or fluid buildup.
  • Intestinal lubricants and laxatives: These may be used to help move the contents of the intestine and relieve any impactions.

Surgical Intervention

Surgical intervention is necessary to resolve strangulation colic in horses. The following procedures may be performed:

  • Exploratory laparotomy: This is a surgical procedure that involves making an incision in the horse’s abdomen to examine the intestine and locate the site of the obstruction.
  • Resection and anastomosis: If a section of the intestine is damaged or necrotic, it may need to be removed and the healthy ends of the intestine reconnected.
  • Enterotomy: This is a surgical procedure that involves making an incision in the intestine to remove any impactions or foreign bodies.

Overall, the treatment of strangulation colic in horses requires a multidisciplinary approach involving veterinarians, surgeons, and other equine health professionals. The success of the treatment depends on the prompt recognition of the condition, appropriate medical management, and timely surgical intervention.

Unfortunately for horse owners, surgical intervention is very costly and may not be a practical option for everyone. 

Prevention Strategies for Strangulation Colic

While some cases of strangulation colic are unavoidable, there are several strategies that horse owners can implement to reduce the risk of this condition.

Dietary Management

Dietary management is a critical component of preventing strangulation colic. Horses should have access to clean, fresh water at all times, as dehydration can increase the risk of impaction. Owners should also provide their horses with high-quality hay and feed, free from mold and dust, and avoid abrupt changes in their diet.

To prevent sand colic, which can lead to strangulation, owners should avoid feeding their horses on sandy ground and provide hay in a hay net or rack to reduce the risk of sand ingestion. Additionally, supplementing the diet with psyllium for horses can help reduce the risk of sand impaction.

There are also products such as Sandpurge (find it on Amazon here) that are made specifically to help in the removal of sand and dirt from the intestinal tract.

Regular Exercise

Regular exercise is essential for maintaining a healthy digestive system and reducing the risk of colic. Horses should have access to regular turnout, as well as daily exercise, such as riding or lunging. Exercise helps to promote gut motility, which can reduce the risk of impaction colic.

Owners should also monitor their horse’s behavior and watch for any signs of discomfort, such as pawing, kicking at their belly, or repeatedly lying down and getting up. If a horse exhibits any of these signs, it is essential to contact a veterinarian immediately.

More From Savvy Horsewoman:  Horses in Winter - How to Groom a Long Winter Coat!

By using these prevention strategies, horse owners can help reduce the risk of strangulation colic in their horses. However, it is essential to remember that not all cases of colic are preventable, and owners should always be vigilant and seek veterinary attention if their horse exhibits any signs of discomfort or illness.

Prognosis of Strangulation Colic

The prognosis of strangulation colic depends on various factors, including the severity and duration of the colic, the age and general health of the horse, and the success of the surgical procedure.

According to a study published in PubMed, the overall survival rate for horses undergoing surgery for strangulation colic was 72.5%. However, the survival rate varied depending on the type of surgical procedure performed. Horses undergoing small intestine resection had a survival rate of 75.4%, while those undergoing large colon resection had a survival rate of 67.6%.

The study also found that horses with a heart rate of more than 70 beats per minute at the time of admission had a significantly lower survival rate than those with a lower heart rate. Additionally, horses with a packed cell volume (PCV) of less than 30% had a lower survival rate than those with a higher PCV.

Another study published in Equine Veterinary Journal found that horses with strangulation colic had a higher risk of postoperative complications, such as peritonitis and colitis, compared to horses with other types of colic. The study also found that horses with a longer duration of colic before surgery had a higher risk of postoperative complications.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the signs of strangulating lipoma in horses?

The signs of strangulating lipoma in horses include abdominal pain, restlessness, sweating, elevated heart rate, and decreased appetite. The horse may also show signs of discomfort by pawing, rolling, or lying down frequently.

Does a strangulated obstruction in a horse require surgery?

Yes, a strangulated obstruction in a horse requires surgery. A veterinarian will need to surgically remove the obstructed section of the intestine to prevent further damage.

What causes colic in horses?

Colic in horses can be caused by a variety of factors including gastrointestinal disturbances, intestinal obstruction, and inflammation. It can also be caused by parasites, stress, or changes in diet.

What are the symptoms of strangulating lipoma in horses?

The symptoms of strangulating lipoma in horses include colic, depression, decreased appetite, and weight loss. The horse may also have difficulty defecating and may show signs of abdominal pain.

What are the 3 types of colic in horses?

The three types of colic in horses are impaction colic, gas colic, and spasmodic colic. Impaction colic occurs when the intestine becomes blocked by feed material, while gas colic occurs when there is an excessive build-up of gas within the large intestine. Spasmodic colic occurs when the intestine experiences cramps or spasms.

What is the worst type of colic in horses?

The worst type of colic in horses is strangulating colic, which occurs when a portion of the intestine becomes twisted or displaced and the blood supply is cut off. This type of colic requires immediate veterinary attention as it can lead to severe complications and even death.

Have you ever dealt with strangulation colic in horses?


Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.