Crucial knowledge gaps around colic identified in survey of horse owners


A survey of horse owners uncovered crucial gaps in their knowledge around colic and how to respond to the potentially life-threatening condition.

The results of the 2014 survey, reported recently in the Equine Veterinary Journal, were a key driver in the development of the well-received REACT colic campaign that targets horse owners.

The campaign, jointly developed by University of Nottingham researchers and the British Horse Society, recognises that owners play a vital role in identifying the early signs of colic.

Cases can quickly deteriorate, with prompt veterinary attention vital in increasing the chances of recovery for the horse.

A total of 1564 horse owners, mostly from Britain, participated in the survey, with 1331 completing it in full.

The analysis of the responses by Adelle Bowden and her colleagues suggested colic was not well understood by horse owners, with confusion and knowledge gaps around what the condition is, the different signs that may be shown, and how to assess and respond to them.

“The disparity between horse owners’ confidence and ability to recognise colic is concerning,” the study team wrote, “as is the variation in response to different behavioural signs.”

It was clear that the common types of colic with less severe signs represented the biggest challenge for horse owners in terms of identifying the condition.

Many who completed the survey either did not know or provided incorrect estimates for normal clinical parameters in horses. Only 45% gave correct normal values for heart rate, 45% for respiratory rate and 67% for rectal temperature.

Owners said if they suspected their horse had colic they would assess faecal output (76%), gastrointestinal sounds (75%), respiratory rate (65%) and heart rate (54%).

There was a lack of consensus on whether to call a vet for behavioural signs of colic, unless the signs were severe or persistent.

Sixty-one percent of participants were confident that they could recognise most types of colic.

However, the results from case scenarios painted a different picture. Just 49% were confident deciding that a surgical case had colic, while only 9% were confident in identifying an impaction case based on described signs.

Discussing their findings, the study team said there were several areas of incongruence, including owners’ high rating of their ability to recognise colic compared with their responses when presented with the different case scenarios.

Similarly, owners talked about checking clinical parameters, but many did not know what these normal values should be.

“Attitudes to calling a veterinarian in response to different behavioural signs of colic showed significant variation, suggesting that there is no clear consensus on this essential aspect of decision‐making.”

The findings, they said, demonstrate owners’ willingness to be actively involved in the assessment of their horse’s health, but there were issues with how their assessments may be interpreted.

“Less than 50% of participants gave answers within the normal range for heart rate and respiratory rate, and some of the values given were markedly outside of the normal ranges.

“A number of participants were clearly aware of their lack of knowledge of normal values, but others were not aware that their knowledge was inaccurate.”

The clinical signs that would prompt owners to seek veterinary help included a distended abdomen, getting up and down, kicking at the abdomen, and a horse that was thrashing around.

However, the study also identified several signs where many owners would not call a veterinarian.

Fewer than half would call the veterinarian for a horse that was quiet/dull, fence/box walking, weight shifting, pawing the ground, flank‐watching, inappetence, rolling for less than five minutes, or lying down quietly. They would choose instead to monitor, observe or not be concerned.

“These are non‐specific mild signs, which may be seen in normal horses, but are also potential signs of colic,” the researchers said.

“They may be the only signs in less severe types of colic, such as large intestinal impactions, or early signs of other severe conditions, such as colitis or peritonitis.

“Again, this highlights potential issues around decision‐making for horses showing less severe or non‐specific signs of colic.”

They continued: “Participants had a high confidence in their ability to recognise different types of colic, which was not reflected in the scenario responses.”

In the scenarios, participants were much better at recognising a more severe case of colic. However, very few were confident in recognising the cases with milder signs.

“This suggests that participants may be less accurate at recognising a horse with colic than they believe.”

The authors acknowledge that diagnosis can be challenging for both veterinarians and owners.

“This study has, however, highlighted variations in horse owners’ recognition and confidence in decision‐making when presented with different scenarios, especially those with less severe clinical signs.

“Whilst rapid decision‐making is essential in horses with severe lesions, these represent a relatively small proportion of cases, and even the critical cases may present with less marked or obvious clinical signs.”

Signs such as being quiet or dull, lying down or having a poor appetite often did not trigger a response to call the veterinarian.

“The over‐arching finding from this study was the need for further education and resources for horse owners about colic,” the authors said.

The full study team comprised Bowden, John Burford, Marnie Brennan, Gary England and Sarah Freeman, all with the University of Nottingham.

Horse owners’ knowledge, and opinions on recognising colic in the horse
A. Bowden, J.H. Burford, M.L. Brennan, G.C.W. England and S.L. Freeman
Equine Veterinary Journal,

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here

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