Impaction colic in horses is a painful condition caused by an obstruction in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. It is a serious and sometimes fatal condition. [1]

The term colic describes generalized abdominal pain or discomfort in horses. In many cases, this abdominal pain originates from the GI tract; but it’s important to remember that other organs in the abdomen can be a source of pain.

Cases of gastrointestinal colic are generally broken down into three types: spasmodic (gas), non-strangulating obstruction, and strangulating obstruction.

Impactions fall under the category of non-strangulating obstructions and refer to any type of blockage within the lumen of the GI tract. Often, it forms from dry feed (or digesta), but can also be caused by other foreign material, such as parasites, sand, and enteroliths. [2]

These blockages can prevent the normal passage of feed, gas and fluid through the digestive system, leading to mild or severe abdominal pain depending on the location of the impaction and its severity. [2]

Treatment for impaction colic includes giving analgesics for pain relief, rehydration and administering laxatives or psyllium to support intestinal motility. More complex cases may require surgery to remove the obstruction. [2][3][4][5]

The best way to prevent impaction colic is to offer ad libitum (free choice) access to good quality forage and fresh, clean water as well as keeping your horse’s diet and exercise schedule consistent. You should also avoid feeding your horse in sandy areas and follow a veterinarian-recommended deworming protocol.

If your horse is showing signs of colic, this is a medical emergency, and you should contact your veterinarian immediately.

Clinical Signs of Impaction Colic

Impaction colic symptoms are often easy to identify, but not all horses show the same signs. Symptoms vary greatly between individuals, based on the placement and severity of the blockage.

Sudden onset of the following signs behaviours can indicate abdominal pain and should not be ignored: [2][3][6]

  • Reduced intestinal sounds
  • Increased heart rate (over 64 bpm) or other changes in vital signs
  • Reduced fecal output
  • Pale gums
  • Gastric reflux
  • Sweating
  • Abdominal distention
  • Aversion to feed or loss of appetite
  • Pacing, stretching and rolling
  • Pawing at the ground
  • Kicking or biting at the flanks or barrel

Affected horses often look depressed, uncomfortable or uneasy to their owners. They may seem uninterested in their surroundings and unable to focus.

Colic is always an emergency and should be considered whenever there is a deviation from normal behaviour in the horse. [6] If you suspect impaction colic, consult your veterinarian to obtain a diagnosis.

Is My Horse at Risk of Impaction Colic?

Any horse can colic, even with the best care, management and feeding. But some modern management practices, such as long-term stall confinement and intermittent feeding, are linked to a higher risk of colic.

Research shows that keeping a horse stalled most of the day without access to ad libitum forage can increase the risk of colic by over 50%. [4] Lack of movement and fasting between meals can also reduce gut motility and mucosal water transport and affect the microbiome, increasing colic risk. [1][2]

Sudden alterations to the horse’s routine and diet can upset the sensitive digestive system. If your horse is placed on stall rest due to illness or injury, the sudden reduction in mobility can affect digestion and the transit of feed through the gut.

Factors such as poor dentition, dehydration and rapid ingestion of feed may also put horses at higher risk of impaction colic. [7] Other suspected risk factors for colic include:

  • High concentrate, low forage diets
  • History of previous colic
  • Administration of medication or dewormers in the previous month

Equine Digestive Tract Anatomy

Horses are hindgut fermenters, breaking down and extra