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Welcome to the Equestrian Outreach Colic Types Page


Colic Types

This list of types of colic is not exhaustive but details some of the types which may be encountered.
Pelvic Flexure Impaction: This is caused by an impaction of food material (Water, Grass, Hay, Grain) at a part of the large bowel known as the pelvic flexure of the left colon where the intestine takes a 180 degree turn and narrows. Impaction generally responds well to medical treatment, but more severe cases may not recover without surgery. If left untreated, severe impaction colic can be fatal. The most common cause is when the horse is on box rest and/or consumes large volumes of straw, or the horse has dental disease and is unable to masticate properly. This condition could be diagnosed on rectal examination by a veterinarian.
Spasmodic Colic: Spasmodic colic is the result of increased peristaltic contractions in the horse's gastrointestinal tract. It can be the result of a mild gas buildup within the horse's digestive tract. The signs of colic are generally mild and respond well to spasmolytic and analgesic medication.
Ileal Impaction: The ileum is the last part of the small intestine that ends in the cecum. Ileal impaction can be caused by obstruction of ingested material. Other causes can be obstruction by ascarids (Parascaris equorum) or tapeworm (Anoplocephala Perfoliata) as mentioned below.
Sand Impaction: This is most likely to occur in horses that graze sandy or heavily grazed pastures leaving only dirt to ingest. The term sand also encompasses dirt. The ingested sand or dirt accumulates in the pelvic flexure, right dorsal colon and the cecum of the large intestines. As the sand or dirt irritates the lining of the bowel it can cause diarrhea. The weight and abrasion of the sand or dirt causes the bowel wall to become inflamed and can cause a reduction in colonic motility and in severe cases even peritonitis. Historically medical treatment of the problem is with laxatives such as liquid paraffin or oil and psyllium husk. More recently doctors are treating cases with specific synbiotic (pro and prebiotic) and psyllium combinations. Some cases may need surgery. Horses with sand or dirt impaction are predisposed to Salmonella infection. Horses should not be fed from the ground in areas where sand, dirt and silt are prevalent although small amounts of sand or dirt will still be ingested by grazing. Management to reduce sand intake and prophylactic treatments with sand removal products are recommended by most veterinarians.
Enterolith: Enteroliths in horses are round balls of mineral deposits often formed around a piece of ingested foreign material, such as sand or gravel. When they move from their original site they can obstruct the intestine. Enteroliths are not a common cause of colic, but are known to have a higher prevalence in states with a sandy soil and where an abundance of alfalfa hay is fed, such as California. Once a horse is diagnosed with colic due to Enterolith it usually requires surgery to correct the condition.
Large Roundworms: Occasionally there can be an obstruction by large numbers of roundworms. This is most commonly seen in young horses as a result of a very heavy infestation of Parascaris equorum that can subsequently cause a blockage and rupture of the small intestine. De-worming heavily infected horses may cause dead worms to puncture the intestinal wall and cause a fatal peritonitis. A blockage of the small intestines by worms may well require colic surgery. A more conservative approach can be to give a horse a laxative (eg liquid paraffin) prior to de-worming if a heavy worm infestation is suspected. It is often the result of a poor de-worming program develops immunity to parascarus between 6 months age and one year and so this condition is rare in adult horses.
Tapeworms: Tapeworms at the junction of the cecum have been implicated in causing colic. The most common species of tapeworm in the equine is Anoplocephala Perfoliata. However, a 2008 study in Canada indicated that there is no connection between tapeworms and colic, contradicting studies performed in the UK.
Cyathostomes: Acute diarrhea can be caused by cyathostomes or "small Stronglus type" worms that are encysted as larvae in the bowel wall, particularly if large numbers emerge simultaneously. The disease most frequently occurs in winter time. Pathological changes of the bowel reveal a typical "pepper and salt" color of the large intestines. Animals suffering from cyathostominosis usually have a poor de-worming history.
Left Dorsal Displacement: Left dorsal displacement is a form of colic where the left dorsal colon becomes trapped above the spleen and against the nephrosplenic ligament. It may necessitate surgery although often it can be treated with exercise and/or phenylephrine, at times anesthesia and a rolling procedure must be performed to correct the condition medically. This condition can be diagnosed on rectal examination or through ultrasonography by a veterinarian.
Right Dorsal Displacement: Right dorsal displacement is another displacement of part of the large bowel. Although signs of colic may not be very severe, surgery is usually the only available treatment.
Torsion: Various parts of the horse's gastrointestinal tract may twist upon themselves. It is most likely to be either small intestine or part of the colon. Occlusion of the blood supply means that it is a painful condition causing rapid deterioration and requiring emergency surgery.
Intussusception: Intussusception is a form of colic in which a piece of intestine "telescopes" within a portion of itself. It most commonly happens in the small intestine of young horses and requires urgent surgery.
Epiploic Foramen Entrapment: On rare occasions, a piece of small intestine can become trapped through the Epiploic foramen. The blood supply to this piece of intestine is immediately occluded. The intestine becomes trapped and surgery is the only available treatment.
Strangulating Lipoma: Benign fatty tumors known as lipomas can form on the mesentery. As the tumor enlarges, it stretches the connective tissue into a stalk which can wrap around a segment of bowel, typically small intestine, cutting off its blood supply. The tumor forms a button that latches onto the stalk of the tumor, locking it on place, and requiring surgery for resolution.
Mesenteric Rent Entrapment: The mesentery is a thin sheet attached to the entire length of intestine, enclosing blood vessels, lymph nodes, and nerves. Occasionally, a small rent (hole) can form in the mesentery, through which a segment of bowel can occasionally enter. As in epiploic foramen entrapment, the bowel first enlarges, since arteries do not occlude as easily as veins, which causes edema (fluid buildup). As the bowel enlarges, it becomes less and less likely to be able to exit the site of entrapment. This problem also requires surgical correction.
Gastric Ulceration: Horses form ulcers in the stomach fairly commonly. Risk factors include confinement, infrequent feedings, a high proportion of concentrate feeds[clarification needed], excessive non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug use, and the stress of shipping and showing. Most ulcers are treatable with medications that inhibit the acid producing cells of the stomach. Antacids are less effective in horses than in humans, because horses produce stomach acid almost constantly, while humans produce acid mainly when eating. Dietary management is critical. Bleeding ulcers leading to stomach rupture are rare.
Simple Obstruction: This is characterized by a physical obstruction of the intestine, which can be due to impacted food material, stricture formation, or foreign bodies. The primary path physiological abnormality caused by this obstruction is related to the trapping of fluid within the intestine oral to the obstruction. This is due to the large amount of fluid produced in the upper gastro-intestinal tract (around 125l daily), and the fact that this is primarily re-absorbed in parts of the intestine downstream from the obstruction. The first problem with this degree of fluid loss from circulation is one of decreased plasma volume, leading to a reduced cardiac output, and acid-base disturbances.

There also occur serious effects on the intestine itself, which becomes distended due to the trapped fluid, and by gas production from bacteria. It is this distension, and subsequent activation of stretch receptors within the intestinal wall, that leads to the associated pain. With progressive distension of the intestinal wall, there is occlusion of blood vessels, firstly veins, then arteries. The difference in time to onset of occlusion is due to the relatively more rigid walls of arteries compared with veins. This impairment of blood supply leads firstly to hyperemia and congestion, and ultimately to ischemic necrosis and cellular death. The poor blood supply also has effects on the vascular endothelium, leading to an increased permeability. This results initially in leakage of plasma, and eventually blood into the intestinal lumen. In the opposite fashion, gram-negative bacteria and endotoxins can enter the bloodstream, leading to further systemic effects.
Strangulating Obstruction: Strangulating obstructions have all the same pathological features as a simple obstruction, but the blood supply is immediately affected. Both arteries and veins may be affected immediately, or progressively as in simple obstruction. Common causes of strangulating obstruction are intussusceptions, volvulus and displacement of intestine through a hole, such as a hernia, a mesenteric rent, or the epiploic foramen.
Non-Strangulating Infarction: In a non-strangulating infarction, blood supply to a section of intestine is occluded, without any obstruction to ingested material present within the intestinal lumen. The most common cause is infection with Stronglus vulgaris larvae, which develop within the (primarily cranial) mesenteric artery.