Colic is usually caused by gas becoming trapped within the gastrointestinal tract. By Lisa Whitfield.

When you hear about colic in animals, it is often in reference to horses, however, all species can suffer from this painful condition, including cattle.

Colic is the term used to describe an episode of acute abdominal pain, usually from gas becoming trapped within the gastrointestinal tract. In cattle, colic generally affects individual animals sporadically rather than a lot of animals at once. Early signs you will generally see include a cow being:

  • Abruptly off milk
  • Sawhorse stance
  • Turning head to look at her stomach
  • Kicking at the stomach with back legs
  • Lying down, standing up and changing position frequently
  • Bloated and tense abdomen.

Colic can be caused by a number of conditions and is often triggered by the individual dietary/nutritional variation that comes with feeding cows in a herd. Common causes include dilation of the caecum – a blind-ended sack which is in the middle of the intestinal tract, blockages from foreign bodies such as gravel and twisted or torsed intestine.

Colic is a painful condition, and any animal showing colic signs should immediately be provided with pain relief from anti-inflammatories. Discuss with your vet which anti-inflammatory to reach for. It is important to monitor a colicking animal closely in the short term – draft her out of the herd and keep her close to the shed – ongoing unrelenting abdominal pain and colic signs usually mean the cow will need surgery if she is to have a chance of surviving. Not every case of colic needs surgery, however, if they do, it is critical it is performed at the earliest opportunity – delays of even 24 hours can mean the gut is damaged beyond repair, and the cow is likely to be lost.

Case study: Cow #312 is a five-year-old Jersey. She was noticed being very slow coming into morning milking, and she tried to lie down in the bail. Her abdomen was a bit bloated. She was given pain relief and drafted. No improvement was seen over the next two hours so she received a veterinary examination.

When #312 was examined, she was lying down on the yard as she was in too much pain to stand. She had a normal temperature, her heart rate was elevated, and she was breathing fast. An elevated heart rate is a sign of significant pain.

As part of the examination of a colicking cow, a vet will thoroughly listen to the abdomen with a stethoscope. In cattle, contractions of the rumen are heard regularly on the left hand side. We perform “pinging’ and “ballotment”. This involves percussing and sloshing the abdomen with your hand over the left and right sides of the abdomen while listening with a stethoscope, and it allows us to identify specific areas of the abdomen that have a trapped gas pocket. In #312 there was a gas pocket identified high in the right flank.

Ultrasound is a really useful tool for colicking animals – it can readily be used to assess internal organs including the intestine, and is valuable in deciding whether a colicking cow needs surgery or not. For cow #312, ultrasound showed a large area of dilated intestine, which meant immediate surgery was required.

Surgery was performed immediately under local anaesthesia, with #312 lying on the ground as she was still unable to stand. A diagnosis of dilated caecum was made – there was 15 litres of fluid and gas trapped within the caecum, distending an organ which should normally only have a capacity of a few litres. The problem was corrected by draining the fluid and gas out and stitching the hole up again. #312 went on to recover from the operation and continued to be a productive cow in the herd. Colic is a condition which you will see onfarm from time to time. Know the signs and provide affected animals with immediate pain relief. Keep a close eye on affected individuals, and call a vet early in the piece if you want to achieve the best outcome for the cow.

  • Lisa Whitfield is a production animal veterinarian in the Manawatu.