Horse Colic Death: Causes, Symptoms, and Prevention


Horse colic is a condition that affects horses’ digestive systems, causing abdominal pain. It is a prevalent condition that can lead to death if not treated promptly. According to the Merck Veterinary Manual, the incidence of colic in the general horse population has been estimated between 4 and 10 percent over the course of the average lifespan. Among domesticated horses, colic is the leading cause of premature death.

The symptoms of colic in horses can vary depending on the severity of the condition. Horses with mild colic may show signs of discomfort, such as pawing the ground, getting up and down frequently, or lying down more than usual. However, horses with severe colic may show more severe symptoms, such as sweating, increased heart and respiratory rates, and rolling or thrashing violently. In some cases, colic can cause the intestine or stomach to rupture, which can lead to acute death.

It is essential for horse owners to be aware of the signs of colic and seek veterinary attention immediately if their horse shows any symptoms. Early diagnosis and treatment can mean the difference between life and death for a horse with colic. While it can be a serious and sometimes fatal condition, prompt treatment can help minimize the risk of horse colic death.

Understanding Horse Colic

Definition of Colic

Colic is a term used to describe abdominal pain in horses. It is a common condition that affects horses of all ages and breeds and can range from mild discomfort to severe pain. Colic can be caused by a variety of factors, including digestive problems, infections, and obstructions.

Common Types of Colic

There are several types of colic that horses can experience, including impaction colic, gas colic, and torsion.

  • Impaction colic occurs when a firm mass of feed material causes a blockage in the intestine. Horses that don’t drink enough water and get dehydrated, eat poor quality hay, ingest excessive sand, or have problems with their teeth and can’t chew properly are at a higher risk for impaction colic.
  • Gas colic occurs when gas builds up in the intestine, causing pain and discomfort. This type of colic is often caused by changes in diet, stress, or lack of exercise.
  • Torsion colic, also known as twisted gut, occurs when the intestine becomes twisted, cutting off blood supply to the affected area. This is a serious condition that requires immediate veterinary attention.

It is important to note that colic can have many different causes and symptoms, and not all cases of colic are the same. Some horses may show mild symptoms, while others may exhibit severe pain and distress. It is crucial for horse owners to be aware of the signs of colic and to seek veterinary care immediately if they suspect their horse is experiencing abdominal pain.

Causes and Risk Factors

Dietary Factors

Dietary factors can play a significant role in the development of colic in horses. Feeding horses a diet that is high in grain and low in forage can increase the risk of colic. Overfeeding, underfeeding, or sudden changes in diet can also contribute to colic. Horses that are prone to cribbing, which is a compulsive behavior where horses gnaw on wood or other objects, are at a higher risk of developing colic.

Environmental Factors

Environmental factors can also contribute to the development of colic in horses. Horses that are kept in stalls for extended periods of time are at a higher risk of developing colic. This is because stall confinement can lead to decreased physical activity, which can slow down digestion. Exposure to sand or other foreign materials in the environment can also lead to colic.

Medical Conditions

Certain medical conditions can also increase the risk of colic in horses. Parasites, such as strongyles, can damage the intestinal lining and lead to colic. Dehydration can also contribute to colic by reducing the volume of fluids in the digestive tract, which can cause impaction colic. Medical conditions such as colitis, enteritis, and gastric ulcers can also increase the risk of colic.

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It is important to note that not all cases of colic can be prevented, and some horses may be more prone to developing colic than others. However, by understanding the causes and risk factors of colic, horse owners can take steps to minimize the risk of colic and manage the condition effectively.

Signs and Symptoms

Physical Signs

Physical signs of colic in horses can include abdominal pain, rolling, and lying down. Horses experiencing severe colic may roll excessively and violently. This can cause injury to the horse and can be dangerous for handlers. Sweating, pawing, and an increased heart rate are also common physical signs of colic in horses.

Behavioral Changes

Behavioral changes can also indicate colic in horses. Horses experiencing colic may be restless, agitated, or lethargic. They may refuse food or water and may not be interested in socializing with other horses. Horses may also exhibit unusual behaviors such as biting or kicking at their flanks.

It is important to note that not all horses with colic will exhibit all of these signs and symptoms. Some horses may only show a few of these signs, while others may show many. If a horse exhibits any of these signs or symptoms, it is important to contact a veterinarian immediately. Early intervention can greatly improve the chances of a successful outcome.

Diagnosis of Horse Colic

When a horse is suspected of having colic, a prompt diagnosis is crucial to increase the chances of a successful treatment. A veterinarian will typically perform a thorough examination to determine the severity and cause of the colic.

Veterinary Examination

During the examination, the veterinarian will take a detailed history of the horse’s behavior, diet, and any recent changes in management. The veterinarian will also observe the horse’s behavior and vital signs, including heart rate, respiratory rate, and temperature.

One of the most important diagnostic tools for colic is rectal palpation. The veterinarian will insert a lubricated arm into the rectum to feel for any abnormalities, such as impactions, twists, or displacements of the intestine. This procedure can be uncomfortable for the horse, but it is necessary to diagnose the cause of the colic accurately.

Diagnostic Tests

In addition to rectal palpation, the veterinarian may perform other diagnostic tests to determine the severity and cause of the colic. One common test is the nasogastric tube, which involves passing a tube through the horse’s nostril and into the stomach to relieve any gas buildup and collect fluids for analysis.

Blood tests may also be performed to assess the horse’s overall health and detect any signs of infection or inflammation. Ultrasound and radiography may be used to visualize the internal organs and identify any abnormalities.

Treatment and Management

Medical Treatment

Medical treatment is the first line of defense for horse colic and involves a range of interventions to alleviate the symptoms and address the underlying cause. The treatment may include the administration of medication, mineral oil, and fluids to relieve pain, reduce inflammation, and prevent dehydration. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as Bute may be prescribed to relieve pain and inflammation.

In cases of intestinal obstruction, medication may be administered to relax the intestinal muscles and allow the blockage to pass. In some cases, a nasogastric tube may be used to relieve pressure on the stomach and intestines. The horse may also be placed on a restricted diet and monitored closely for any signs of improvement or deterioration.

Surgical Intervention

Surgical intervention may be required in cases where the medical treatment is ineffective or the condition is severe. The surgery may involve the removal of the blockage, repair of the damaged tissue, or removal of a portion of the intestine. The decision to perform surgery is based on several factors, including the severity of the condition, the age and overall health of the horse, and the availability of specialized care.

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Post-Treatment Care

Post-treatment care is essential to ensure the horse’s full recovery and prevent any complications. The horse may require hospitalization for several days or weeks, depending on the severity of the condition and the type of treatment received. During this time, the horse may need to be monitored closely for any signs of recurrence or complications.

The post-treatment care may involve the administration of medication, fluids, and a restricted diet to aid in the healing process. The horse may also need to be kept in a quiet and stress-free environment to reduce the risk of recurrence. In some cases, referral to a specialist may be necessary for ongoing care and management.

Prevention Strategies

Preventing horse colic is essential to ensure the horse’s well-being. While some types of colic are unavoidable, many can be prevented by following a few simple strategies. Here are some preventive measures that horse owners can take to reduce the risk of colic.

Diet and Exercise Regimen

A well-balanced diet and a proper exercise regimen are essential for a healthy horse. Horse owners should provide their horses with fresh, clean water at all times. Horses should also have access to salt, as it stimulates thirst and helps prevent dehydration. Experts recommend that horse owners avoid putting feed on the ground, especially in sandy soils, as it increases the risk of sand colic.

Horse owners should also change the intensity and duration of an exercise regimen gradually. Sudden changes in exercise can cause stress and increase the risk of colic. Providing daily exercise and/or turnout is also important to keep the horse healthy and prevent colic.

Routine Health Checks

Routine health checks are essential to prevent colic. Horse owners should have a veterinarian perform regular dental check-ups to ensure that the horse’s teeth are in good condition. Poor dental health can lead to colic, as horses may not be able to chew their food properly.

Owners should also have their horses’ dewormed regularly to prevent parasite infestations. Parasites can cause colic and other health issues in horses.

Parasite Control

Parasite control is crucial to prevent colic. Owners should have their horses’ dewormed regularly to prevent parasite infestations. Experts recommend that horse owners work with their veterinarian to develop a deworming program that is tailored to their horse’s specific needs. Overuse of dewormers can lead to drug resistance, which can increase the risk of colic.

Complications and Prognosis

Potential Complications

Colic in horses can lead to a variety of complications, some of which can be life-threatening. One of the most common complications is a loss of blood supply to the intestine, which can occur due to a variety of reasons, including torsion, intussusception, displacement, or blockage. If the blood supply is not restored quickly, the affected portion of the intestine can become necrotic, leading to sepsis and death.

Another potential complication of colic is laminitis, which is a condition that affects the horse’s hooves. Laminitis occurs when there is a disruption in the blood flow to the laminae, which are the sensitive tissues that connect the horse’s hoof to its coffin bone. This can occur due to a variety of reasons, including the administration of certain medications, changes in diet, or prolonged recumbency. Laminitis can be extremely painful and can lead to permanent damage if not treated promptly.

Prognosis and Recovery

The prognosis for horses with colic depends on a variety of factors, including the severity of the condition, the underlying cause, and the horse’s overall health. In general, horses that require colic surgery have a lower chance of survival than those that can be managed medically. According to a study by the American College of Veterinary Surgeons, horses that undergo colic surgery have a 60-70% chance of survival, while those that are managed medically have a 90% chance of survival.

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Recovery from colic can be a slow process, and horses may require extended periods of rest and rehabilitation before they are able to return to normal activity. During the recovery period, it is important to monitor the horse’s respiratory rate, as well as its liver function, to ensure that there are no further complications. In some cases, horses may develop a mass or adhesions in the abdomen following colic surgery, which can lead to further complications.

In some cases, euthanasia may be necessary if the horse’s condition is severe and there is no hope for recovery. However, this is a difficult decision to make, and it is important to consult with a veterinarian to determine the best course of action.

Implications of Horse Colic Death

Horse colic is a serious condition that can lead to death. According to a national study conducted by the USDA’s National Animal Health Monitoring System in 2015, colic was the leading cause of death for horses aged 1 to 20 years old, accounting for 31.2% of deaths. For horses over 20 years of age, colic was the second leading cause of death (13.4%) behind old age (26.6%) [1].

When a horse dies from colic, it can have significant implications for the owner, veterinarian, and the equine industry as a whole. The loss of a horse can be emotionally devastating for the owner, who may have formed a strong bond with the animal. Additionally, the death of a horse can have financial implications, especially if the horse was a valuable breeding or performance animal.

From a veterinary perspective, the death of a horse from colic can be frustrating, as it is often a preventable condition. Endotoxemia, a condition caused by the release of toxins from the gut into the bloodstream, is a common complication of colic and can lead to death. Early recognition and treatment of colic can prevent the development of endotoxemia and increase the chances of survival.

The equine industry as a whole can also be affected by horse colic deaths. The loss of valuable breeding or performance animals can have a significant impact on the industry’s financial stability. Additionally, public perception of the industry can be negatively affected by high rates of horse colic deaths.

[1] VM177/VM139: Colic in Horses – EDIS

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the early signs of colic in horses?

The early signs of colic in horses include pawing, kicking at the belly, lying down and getting up repeatedly, sweating, loss of appetite, and looking at the flank. If a horse shows these signs, it’s important to contact a veterinarian immediately.

What causes colic in horses?

Colic in horses can be caused by a variety of factors, including changes in diet or feeding schedule, parasites, stress, dehydration, and impaction. Some horses are more prone to colic due to their breed or age.

How fast can a horse die from colic?

The speed at which a horse can die from colic depends on the severity of the condition and how quickly it is treated. In some cases, a horse can die within a few hours of showing signs of colic.

Can colic cause death in horses?

Yes, colic can cause death in horses. If left untreated, colic can lead to complications such as intestinal rupture, sepsis, or shock, which can be fatal.

How does colic cause death in horses?

Colic can cause death in horses by leading to complications such as intestinal rupture, sepsis, or shock. These conditions can cause damage to other organs and systems in the body, leading to death.

How often is colic fatal in horses?

The fatality rate for colic in horses varies depending on the severity of the condition and how quickly it is treated. In some cases, colic can be successfully treated with medication and other interventions. However, in severe cases, the fatality rate can be as high as 10-15%.


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