All you need to know about “colic”

by Dr. Orsi Kutasi, DVM, PhD, Dipl.ECEIM
    Chief Veterinary Officer

A horse owner’s worst nightmare starts when they hear the word “colic”. Did you know that colic is the number one cause of death in horses? Colic affects hundreds of thousands every year and the incidence of colic in the general horse population has been estimated at between four to ten percent over the course of their lifetime.

Colic by definition means abdominal pain but it is a clinical sign rather than a diagnosis. There are various forms of equine colic; most cases are gastrointestinal in nature ranging from twisted intestines, to worm infestation, or over-feeding, and so on, but occasionally colic can be the result of urinary and reproductive problems as well. Many of these abdominal conditions are very serious, and life-threatening. For this reason, all colic cases should be treated as an emergency. It is critical for horse owners to recognize the early signs of colic, because the sooner the horse is seen and treated, the greater their chance of recovery. The majority of colic cases (approximately 90 percent) can be successfully treated but the rest requires immediate hospitalization and abdominal surgery.

Clinical signs of colic include changes in behavior or activity that indicate abdominal pain. These signs are relatively universal but individual horses may exhibit slightly different colicky behavior even if it’s the same cause. Although the severity of colic signs reflecting abdominal pain is a relatively good indicator of the severity of the underlying disorder but still we have to note that particular signs do not indicate which portion of the gastro intestinal (GI) tract is involved or whether surgery will be needed or not. The most common clinical signs in mild or early cases include: anxiety or depression, pawing at the ground, looking at the flank, rolling or wanting to lie down, lack of defecation, lack of appetite. Clinical manifestations of severe abdominal pain may include the following signs or behavior: excessive sweating, continuous rolling, persistent movement and getting up and down violently.

The heart rate rises with the progression of colic, in part due to pain, but mainly due to decreased circulating volume and dehydration. The heart rate is measured over time, and pulse that continues to rise is considered an important indicator of a more severe condition and heart rate of in access of 60 beats per minute might necessitate surgical intervention.

Early detection is the key to saving your precious horse from possible harm or death. Sensing activity changes in the horse’s movements and position will allow us to detect early signs of colic.

The Equine Monitoring System (EMS) being developed by Steed is a non-invasive device which will be mounted on the horse and consists of an accelerometer and gyroscope to monitor all these clinical signs, cardiovascular activity pulse sensor to measure level of pain. Steed’s EMS will send alerts to you and your veterinarian with important information about the status and severity of the disease all in real time.