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Care Guide

About Care Guides[x] These care guides are written to help your clients understand common conditions, tests, and procedures, as well as to provide basic information about pet care. They are based on the most up-to-date, documented information, recommendations, and guidelines available in the United States at the time of writing. Pharmaceutical product licensing, availability, and usage recommendations are based on US product information. Use the Download Handout button to generate a PDF for printing or e-mailing to your clients.

Equine Colic

    • Colic is one of the leading causes of death in horses.
    • Colic requires immediate attention from a veterinarian.
    • Horses often develop colic because their digestive systems are very long and complex.
    • Colic can happen to even the most expertly cared for animals, but you can take some simple steps to minimize the risks for your horse.

    What Is It?

    The word colic describes abdominal pain, which can be caused by many different problems. It can occur suddenly or gradually over a period of days. Horses often develop  colic because their digestive systems are very long (more than 100 feet!) and complex. Certain parts of their digestive system are prone to develop twists and impactions (blockages) of food material. Also, horses’ digestive systems are designed for foraging—eating small amounts of food throughout the day while on the move. However, domestic horses are often fed large amounts of highly concentrated diets (e.g., grain) two or three times a day and kept in small areas without enough pasture turnout, grazing, and exercise. Stress from activities such as racing or showing may also contribute to colic.

    Signs of Equine Colic

    Colic can have many signs, but the most common include:

    • Decreased eating and/or drinking
    • Reduced quantity of manure or decreased frequency of defecation
    • Change in quality of feces (e.g., small, hard manure balls vs. large, soft manure piles)
    • Disturbed bedding, showing that your horse has been pawing or getting up and down
    • Kicking at abdomen
    • Pawing
    • Turning to look at abdomen
    • Lying down
    • Rolling or thrashing
    • Sweating
    • Fast breathing
    • Increased pulse (increased heart rate)
    • Fever
    • Lack of gut sounds (check with stethoscope)

    Diagnosis and Treatment

    The most important step in treating colic is to call your veterinarian. If you suspect colic, call your veterinarian immediately. Do not attempt to diagnose and treat colic on your own.

    Some colic cases can be treated at the farm under the care or supervision of a veterinarian with the use of pain-relieving medications, muscle relaxers, laxatives, and fluids. However, many cases require more sophisticated diagnostic tests and/or surgery.

    If the signs are mild, your veterinarian may provide treatment recommendations and advise monitoring the situation. If any signs cause your veterinarian to be concerned, however, he or she may recommend  transporting your horse to an equine veterinary hospital for further evaluation and treatment.

    While you are waiting for your veterinarian to arrive, be sure to:

    • Remove all food and water.
    • If your horse is on pasture, contain him or her in a safe enclosure or stall without food and water.
    • Take vital signs if you can (see below).
    • Listen for gut sounds.
    • Blanket your horse if he or she seems “shocky” or if the weather is cool.
    • Alternate walking your horse with periods of rest. Allow rest breaks as long as your horse does not attempt to roll. A horse that is continually attempting to lie down and roll should be walked.
    • Survey the horse’s living area to see whether he or she has been eating, drinking, and defecating normally.

    Do not administer medications (analgesics) unless specifically directed to do so by your veterinarian. Medications can mask important signs and allow a serious case of colic to progress to the point where it becomes more difficult to treat.


    Colic is one of the leading causes of death in horses, and it can happen to even the most expertly cared for animals. However, you can take some simple steps to minimize the risks for your horse.

    • Make sure your horse always has access to plenty of fresh, clean water, especially in the winter. Horses will drink more water in the winter if it is warm and does not contain ice.
    • Always feed plenty of forage (hay or pasture).
    • Never make abrupt changes in your horse’s diet.
    • Follow your veterinarian’s recommendations for internal parasite control.
    • Make sure your horse has adequate shelter to protect him or her from weather extremes. A cold horse may not drink enough.
    • Monitor your horse’s eating, drinking, and manure production so that you can quickly detect changes in behavior and consult your veterinarian.

    Caution: Human safety comes first. If your horse becomes excessively agitated due to panic or pain, contain him or her in a safe enclosure or stall. Do not attempt to handle or treat an agitated horse. Otherwise well-mannered horses may attempt to bolt, kick, lunge, etc., when in severe pain.

    Colic Checklist

    • Call the veterinarian.
    • Remove food and water. Take vital signs (temperature, pulse, and respiration) if you can.
    • Move your horse into a safe, contained location (a bedded box stall with buckets, hooks, etc. removed or a small paddock with sturdy fencing) if you can do so safely.

    Vital Signs

    When you call your veterinarian, it’s helpful if you are prepared to answer the following:

    • What is the horse’s temperature? (normal = 99.5°F –101.5°F)
    • What is the horse’s respiration rate? (normal = 8–16 breaths per minute)
    • What is the horse’s pulse rate? (normal = 36–40 beats per minute)
    • Can you hear any gut sounds?