Spasmodic Colic in Horses: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment Options


Spasmodic colic in horses is caused by the interruption of normal internal movement within the gut, leading to abdominal pain. It can be triggered by a variety of factors, including anxiety, fear, and drinking cold water after a heavy workout.

For horses with spasmodic colic, the pain may be severe and cause the horse to roll or thrash in an attempt to find relief. The horse may also display other typical signs of colic, such as sweating, increased heart rate, and decreased appetite. If left untreated, spasmodic colic can lead to serious complications, including colonic rupture and death.

It is important for horse owners to be familiar with the signs and symptoms of spasmodic colic and to seek prompt veterinary care if they suspect their horse is suffering from this condition. With proper treatment and management, most horses with spasmodic colic make a full recovery.

Understanding Spasmodic Colic in Horses

Spasmodic colic is the type of colic that is the most commonly seen in horses. It is caused when the normal internal movement within the gut, known as peristalsis, is interrupted. During a spasmodic attack of colic, the gut sounds are audible and can often be heard without a stethoscope.

Spasmodic colic may be one of the most painful kinds of colic because of the powerful contractions in the bowels of the horse. It is important to note that not all horses experience spasmodic colic in the same way, and the severity of the symptoms can vary. Some horses may only experience mild discomfort, while others may be in severe pain.

The exact cause of spasmodic colic is not fully understood, but it is believed to be related to stress, diet, and other factors that can disrupt the normal function of the digestive system. Some of the common causes of spasmodic colic in horses include:

  • Changes in diet or feeding schedule
  • Dehydration
  • Stress or anxiety
  • Parasites
  • Intestinal blockages
  • Ingestion of sand or other foreign objects

It is important to note that not all cases of spasmodic colic are preventable, but there are steps that horse owners can take to reduce the risk of their horse developing this condition. These include providing a consistent diet and feeding schedule, ensuring that the horse has access to clean water at all times, and minimizing stress and anxiety in the horse’s environment.

Causes of Spasmodic Colic

Dietary Factors

Horses that are fed a diet that is high in grains or concentrates, or that are fed infrequent, large meals, are at an increased risk of developing colic. This is because these types of diets can lead to the development of gas in the intestines, which can cause spasms and pain.

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Environmental Factors

Environmental factors can also contribute to the development of spasmodic colic. Horses that are kept in stalls for long periods of time, or that are not given enough exercise, are at an increased risk. This is because lack of movement can lead to a buildup of gas in the intestines, which can cause spasms and pain.

Physiological Factors

Physiological factors can also play a role. Horses that are nervous or high-strung are more prone to developing colic. This is because stress and anxiety can cause an increase in the production of acid in the stomach, which can lead to the development of ulcers. Ulcers can then cause spasms and pain in the intestines.

Symptoms and Diagnosis

Physical Symptoms

The symptoms of spasmodic colic can be severe and include loud rushing sounds from the horse’s gut, kicking and shaking, pawing the ground, rolling around, and sweating patches on the neck. Horses experiencing spasmodic colic may also exhibit other signs of discomfort such as looking at their sides, biting or kicking their flank, laying down and/or rolling, small and dry fecal balls, poor appetite, change in drinking behavior, increased heart rate, abnormal breathing, sweating, restlessness, dullness or lethargy, and tacky or dry gums.

Diagnostic Tests

If a horse owner suspects their horse may be experiencing spasmodic colic, they should contact their veterinarian immediately. The veterinarian will perform a thorough physical examination of the horse to assess the severity of the colic and determine the best course of treatment.

Diagnostic tests that may be used to diagnose spasmodic colic include rectal palpation, which involves the insertion of a gloved hand into the horse’s rectum to feel for abnormalities in the intestine, and abdominal ultrasound, which uses sound waves to create an image of the horse’s internal organs. Blood tests may also be performed to check for signs of infection or dehydration.

In some cases, the veterinarian may recommend additional diagnostic tests such as a gastroscopy, which involves the insertion of a camera into the horse’s stomach to check for ulcers or other abnormalities, or an exploratory laparotomy, which is a surgical procedure that allows the veterinarian to examine the horse’s internal organs directly.

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Treatment Methods

Fortunately, there are several treatment methods available to help alleviate the pain and discomfort associated with this condition.

Medicinal Treatments

One of the most common treatments for spasmodic colic is the administration of antispasmodic drugs. Dipyrone is an effective antispasmodic drug that can help to reduce the severity of spasms in the gastrointestinal tract. Analgesics such as Banamine and xylazine may also be used to help manage pain associated with the condition.

In some cases, mineral oil may be administered via a nasogastric tube directly into the horse’s stomach to help treat intestinal irritation. However, it is important to note that mineral oil should only be administered under the guidance of a veterinarian.

Surgical Interventions

In severe cases of spasmodic colic, surgical intervention may be necessary. Surgery may be required if the horse is experiencing a blockage or impaction in the gastrointestinal tract that cannot be resolved with medication. During surgery, the veterinarian will remove the blockage or impaction and may also perform additional procedures to help prevent future occurrences of the condition.

It is important to note that surgical intervention is typically reserved for more severe cases of spasmodic colic and should only be performed by a qualified veterinary surgeon.

Preventive Measures

While it can be difficult to completely prevent, there are several measures that horse owners can take to reduce the risk of their horse developing this condition.

Proper Feeding Practices

One of the most important preventive measures for spasmodic colic is proper feeding practices. Horses should be fed a balanced diet that is appropriate for their age, weight, and activity level. It is also important to feed horses at regular intervals and to avoid sudden changes in their diet.

Horse owners should also ensure that their horse has access to clean water at all times. Water should be changed frequently and should be kept at a moderate temperature. Cold water can cause spasms in the horse’s digestive system, which can lead to colic.

Regular Exercise

Regular exercise is another important preventive measure for spasmodic colic. Exercise helps to keep the horse’s digestive system moving and can prevent the buildup of gas and impactions. Horses should be exercised regularly, but the intensity and duration of the exercise should be appropriate for the horse’s age and fitness level.

Routine Veterinary Check-ups

Routine veterinary check-ups are also important for preventing spasmodic colic. Horses should receive regular dental check-ups to ensure that their teeth are in good condition and that they are able to properly chew their food. They should also be dewormed regularly to prevent the buildup of parasites in their digestive system.

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In addition, horse owners should be familiar with their horse’s normal behavior and should be alert for any signs of discomfort or distress. If a horse shows any signs of colic, such as pawing, rolling, or sweating, it is important to contact a veterinarian immediately.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long does spasmodic colic in horses typically last?

The duration of spasmodic colic in horses can vary depending on the severity of the condition. Mild cases may resolve on their own within a few hours, while more severe cases may require veterinary intervention and can last several days.

What are the symptoms of spasmodic colic in horses?

The symptoms of spasmodic colic in horses can include restlessness, pawing at the ground, sweating, rolling, and looking at the flank. The horse may also have a decreased appetite, and in severe cases, may show signs of shock.

What is the treatment for spasmodic colic in horses?

The treatment for spasmodic colic in horses typically involves pain management with medication, such as Banamine or Buscopan. In severe cases, fluid therapy and other supportive care may be necessary. It is important to contact a veterinarian as soon as possible if you suspect your horse is experiencing colic.

What are the causes of spasmodic colic in horses?

Spasmodic colic in horses is caused by a disruption in the normal movement of the gut, known as peristalsis. This can be caused by a variety of factors, including stress, changes in diet, dehydration, and ingestion of sand or other foreign objects.

What is the difference between gas colic and spasmodic colic in horses?

Gas colic and spasmodic colic are both forms of colic in horses, but they have different underlying causes. Gas colic is caused by a buildup of gas in the gut, while spasmodic colic is caused by a disruption in the normal movement of the gut.

What medications are commonly used to treat spasmodic colic in horses?

Medications commonly used to treat spasmodic colic in horses include Banamine, Buscopan, and Drotaverine. These medications work to relieve pain and restore normal gut movement. It is important to consult with a veterinarian before administering any medication to a horse experiencing colic.


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