In horses, colic is an ambiguous, potentially dangerous, diagnosis.
“Colic is a description for abdominal pain,” says Annette McCoy, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVS, an equine surgeon at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital, in Urbana. “We use it assuming that the origin of the pain is intestinal, but technically the signs can indicate pain anywhere in the abdomen.”
Three Types of Colic
True intestinal colic can be divided into three types: gas colic, obstructive lesions, and functional obstructions:
- Gas colic is the simplest and most common type. Just as in other animals, excess gas production in horses can cause mild to moderate discomfort. Luckily this problem can be resolved medically fairly easily, and it carries a positive prognosis.
- Obstructive lesions are a bit more complicated. In these cases, something blocks the passage of digestive material through the gastrointestinal tract. Non-strangulating obstructive lesions, such as impaction (digestive material itself physically blocking passage), can often be managed medically. However, strangulating obstructive lesions—when an actual twist in the intestine prevents the movement of digestive contents—are surgical emergencies. The faster they are dealt with, the better the prognosis for the horse.
- Functional obstructions mean there isn’t anything actually in the way of the digestive contents, but something is causing the gut to not move as it should, so food is just sitting there.“Enteritis, which is inflammation of the intestine, is characterized as a functional obstruction,” McCoy says. “This situation can be managed medically, but if the pain is too severe the horse may need to be taken to surgery.”
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