What you see. The starting point for addressing any equine health related issue is your observation.


Abdominal Pain, Colic Signs


"Colic" is a general term for a horse's demonstration of abdominal pain. It is a common emergency, and can result from simple gas accumulation or gut spasm (70% of the time), or from more serious problems involving any part of the equine intestine. Occasionally a horse can show colic signs when body systems other than the intestines are involved. Examples are a bladder stone or muscle pain from "tying up".

Signs of colic include the listed related observations. Any or all of these signs can range from mild to severe, but severity of any signs do not always correlate to the severity of the problem. Horses may show one sign, or many.

Donkeys in mild colic pain tend not to be as expressive of abdominal pain as horses and may show more subtle signs of depression such as head hanging, eyes closed, standing in corner, off feed.

  • Code Red

    Call Your Vet Immediately, Even Outside Business Hours
    • When you first notice signs of colic.
    • If a horse has had flunixin (Banamine) and has not returned to normal attitude and appetite.
  • Code Yellow

    Contact Your Vet at Your Convenience for an Appointment
    • To learn how to minimize the likelihood of the problem in your horses.
    • Once the problem is resolved it is still wise to evaluate the horse's general health and management to ensure there is no underlying problem.
You also might be observing
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your role


What To Do

Your horse is showing signs of colic pain. If it seems safe to do so, assess their general health using the Whole Horse Exam (WHE) paying particular attention to their attitude, heart rate, mucous membrane appearance, capillary refill time, and gut sounds. Share these findings with your vet when you call them.

Depending on the circumstances, your vet may advise you to treat and monitor your horse yourself or suggest that they examine the horse. If your vet advises you to treat your horse with pain medication, always remove feed and prevent access to feed.

Medications like flunixin meglumine (Banamine®) may mask the signs of colic pain regardless of whether the condition causing the pain is really resolved. This may cause the horse to become hungry again and eat (or want to eat) when they should not.

If your vet advises you to treat the horse yourself, also talk to them about the subtle signs to watch for that might indicate an ongoing problem despite medication, and when to begin feeding the horse again.

What Not To Do

Do not handle a colicy horse if you are not confident you can do it safely.

Do not give your horse any medication (including Banamine®) without first consulting your vet because you may mask signs of illness and delay treatment. Do not give your horse a dose of Banamine®, assume that it has "fixed" the problem, and go to bed. Do not give your horse several doses of Banamine® without veterinary guidance. Additional doses of medication do not necessarily improve pain relief and can cause fatal side effects.

Do not assume that the problem has resolved because your horse has passed manure.

Do not give "colic remedies" or any other treatments or medications without first talking to your vet. Substances containing belladonna paralyze the gut, which can be harmful. These products can help temporarily though, and since 70% of episodes are simple and will resolve on their own without such medications, most horses get better.

Do not insert anything up the rectum or give your horse an enema. The rectum is very fragile and can be torn, a potentially fatal injury.

While walking a horse can be helpful, exercising a horse to exhaustion can worsen the situation and increase stress to the horse.

Do not try to pass a naso-gastric tube yourself.

Do not assume that "colic" is always a simple problem that is simply resolved.

Skills you may need

Procedures that you may need to perform on your horse.

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your vet's role

Your vet uses a history, physical examination and basic diagnostics to try to categorize the condition causing the colic pain as either simple and responsive to field treatment, or requiring hospitalization and more aggressive therapy. They treat the horse symptomatically as they are examining it.

Ultimately, your vet's goal is to quickly differentiate between horses that require surgery from horses that will respond to medical therapy.
Questions Your Vet Might Ask:
  • When did you first notice this?
  • What is the horse's age, sex, breed and history?
  • Describe the signs.
  • What are the results of the Whole Horse Exam (WHE)?
  • Are you seeing other signs of abdominal pain (colic)?
  • Does your horse have a history of colic?
  • Have you changed your horse's feed or management lately?
  • Is the horse up-to-date on vaccinations, deworming and dentistry?
  • Are any of the other horses at the facility showing signs of abdominal pain (colic)?

Diagnostics Your Vet May Perform

Figuring out the cause of the problem. These are tests or procedures used by your vet to determine what’s wrong.

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Diagnoses Your Vet May Consider

The cause of the problem. These are conditions or ailments that are the cause of the observations you make.

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Treatments Your Vet May Recommend

A way to resolve the condition or diagnosis. Resolving the underlying cause or treating the signs of disease (symptomatic treatment)

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Author: Doug Thal DVM Dipl. ABVP