Colic is the most common life-threatening condition horses of all ages face, and it's important to recognize symptoms of colic. Unfortunately, colic is not well understood or appreciated by many horse owners.
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The term colic is not, in itself, a specific diagnosis of what is wrong with the horse. Colic is merely a term for horses suffering abdominal pain. Causes of colic can be anything from a transient gas distention of a section of bowel to a physical displacement or obstruction of a part of the bowel.
Discerning the symptoms of colic is, of course, very critical to successfully treating the problem. If there is a displacement or other physical condition impacting the digestive tract, no drugs will correct the problem. It is a surgical emergency.
It is at this point, I have observed, that some horse owners have a problem understanding the situation. They, or a friend, have had a horse with the same symptoms, and with an injection of drugs, and perhaps some mineral oil administered via a nasogastric tube, the horse got well. It is hard for them to appreciate that abdominal pain can have such widely different causes.
One of the most challenging things I have faced over the years is making an early evaluation that decides whether to treat a colicky horse medically at the owner's place or advise referral to a surgical site. This decision has to be made quickly, because a matter of a few hours delay in some of these cases can decide the horse's fate.
Symptoms I have come to rely on in making this decision are often based on degree. Constancy and degree of pain, pulse rate, presence or absence of bowel sounds on auscultation, the horse's expression, and perhaps a rectal palpation are the common factors I use in evaluating the condition. The response to an intravenous analgesic drug, such as Xylazine (i.e., "Rompun"), also helps in the evaluation.
My philosophy on this matter is, when in doubt, transport the horse to a clinic quickly. Many benefits are realized. The horse is on site and preparations for surgical correction are made in a timely fashion.
Other diagnostic tests, such as ultrasound evaluation of the abdomen and blood analysis, can be key to proper handling of the case. Intravenous fluid therapy can be curative to certain conditions of colic, such as severe colon impactions, and this treatment is best done in a clinic setting. An unnecessary haul to a clinic is a minor inconvenience compared to the consequences of waiting too long.