Colic – How can feeding choices help or hinder?

While most of us are accustomed to recognizing the signs of colic, such as restlessness, pawing at the ground or straddling as if to urinate, managing a horse post colic is a different matter altogether. This article takes a look at how feeding choices can help reduce the risk of colic as well as how feeding post colic can help or hinder the animal's chance for a full recovery.

Colic is the veterinary term used to describe the behavioural signs associated with abdominal pain in horses. In the majority of cases this pain arises from distention of the intestine. Occasionally abdominal pain may originate in an area other than the intestine. Colic is the single most common cause of death in horses.

Prevention is better than cure- The Relationship Between Feeding Choices and Colic

Horses have evolved to consume small quantities of high fibre, low carbohydrate feeds continuously. Many modern day feeding techniques, however, contradict these nutritional needs. Management practices such as stable confinement and few large meals, for instance, can lead to digestive upset and colic.

Although horses are designed to consume grass throughout the day, studies have shown that today's pastures often contain different grasses with high levels of fermentable carbohydrates that can potentially cause seasonal colic. It is therefore important to know what type of grass your horse is consuming, how it grows and which seasons may have a higher risk. (In spring, for instance, grass becomes very rich and horses may gorge themselves). Despite this, however, studies show that horses not allowed turnout, or with a recent reduction in turnout, are three times more likely to develop colic than horses allowed ample pasture access. Sudden changes in paddock and thus grass type, as well as the lack of water available in the pasture, also increase the risk of colic.

Hay is a popular forage choice for horses, but this too has been associated with colic development. Consuming large portions of poor quality forage can increase the risk of impaction colic, as well as making abrupt hay changes.

Lucerne hay has been shown to be beneficial to the equine gut in terms of aiding with gastric ulcers by buffering stomach acid, and can also have a laxative effect which could be beneficial in some types of colic. However in large amounts (over 50% of the horse hay ration) it could actually cause colic due to its high protein level which can create a digestive tract environment that promotes intestinal stone formation. High protein grasses such as Lucerne should thus be used sparingly. Wheat bran, interestingly enough, is also suspected to encourage intestinal stone formation.

Hay remains the most important aspect of the horse’s diet and all horses should have at least 1% in bodyweight per day in hay, although the optimal for the average horse would be around 1.5%. The risk of colic increases when amounts fall below this level.

Carbohydrate rich feeds, including grains and sugars, are the most commonly implicated dietary cause of colic in the horse, likely due to the well documented influences of this substrate on the flora of the equine gastrointestinal tract. Research study results have found several associations between concentrates and colic risk. One particular study found that feeding more than 2.7 kilograms of oats per day increased colic risk, while another identified whole raw maize as a major risk factor. Studies have yielded conflicting results regarding whether pelleted feeds increase colic risk. It is commonly thought however, that pellets that are high in fibre and low in cereals and sugars actually have the potential to reduce the risk of colic. Once again, a sudden change in the concentrate normally consumed elevates the colic risk considerably.

Suggestions for colic prevention:

• Provide a consistent diet, and make changes to concentrate, hay and even pasture over at least 7-10 days, as this allows the beneficial gut bacteria time to adapt.

• Ensure that roughage is fed at an absolute minimum of 1% of the horse's body weight per day if weight loss is needed; healthy horses should consume about 1.5%- 2% of their body weight daily, depending on their workload, age and condition.

• Ensure hay is of good quality.

• Keep concentrate consumption to a minimum, and break concentrate meals into several small servings throughout the day, feeding no more than 2.5kg per meal

• If additional energy is required in the horse's diet, consider sources such as oil, which has a lower risk of causing colic, and is also a “cool” source of energy.

• Avoid stall confinement for more than half the day, high-protein diets when not needed, low-fibre diets, and intermittent meals.

• Avoid raw cereal grains as these are not as digestible and could cause digestive problems.

• Ensure water is always available. In cold weather horses often reduce their water intake so careful monitoring is required during these times, and luke warm water should be provided if the horse is reluctant to drink freely.

• Products such as Equus Cool ‘n Perform 12%, Train ‘n Leisure, Safe ‘n Lite and Nice ‘n Easy are all high in fibre and lower in cereal grains and sugars making them ideal feeds for horses prone to colic.

Feeding After Colic

Defining the type of colic incurred and feeding for that specific type of colic is the best way to ensure your horse recovers well. The key factor of post colic management is to evaluate the horse's diet, environment, and feeding schedule to try to identify any predisposing risk factors for colic. Some of the more common types of colic and how to feed immediately after are dealt with below:

Simple colic cases

These are cases that resolve quickly and relatively easily are considered uncomplicated. These resolve with mild medical treatment, and the horse generally recovers in 12 to 24 hours. In these cases, feeding can resume as soon as normal gut sounds and fecal production return. It is recommended that small amounts of good quality grass hay be fed every four to six  hours for the first 12 to 24 hours.

The horse's forage rations can then increase and return to normal over 24 to 48 hours if no adverse reactions are noted. In these uncomplicated cases, it is advised that concentrates be avoided for 10 days post colic, to avoid any re occurrence of gastrointestinal disruption. It is of great importance that the horse stays hydrated post colic.

Large Colon Impactions

One of the most common colic causes in horses is large colon impactions (a blockage forming in the large intestine). Feed should be withheld during treatment, but feeding should not be delayed for longer than 10 days once treatment has resolved. Good quality forages, should initially be provided in small amounts four to six times daily, with a gradual increase over 24 to 48 hours to the horses normal rations. When re-introducing feed, providing free choice hay to reduce the risk of gastric ulcer development and choosing a low grain diet could also help.

Green grass and lucerne based diets (although as mentioned previously these grasses should not exceed 50% of the horses total roughage portion) can provide a laxative effect and might help prevent recurrence in recovered horses. Additionally, try to ensure good water intake with salt or electrolyte supplementation to prevent impactions.

Sand Impactions: Veterinarians generally treat sand impactions medically, similarly to feed impactions, but severe cases might necessitate surgical correction.

The key to feeding horses post sand impaction colic is to remove the animal from the sandy area if possible. Additional steps include:

• Avoid feeding the horse on the ground if possible;

• Use large tubs and/or rubber mats to prevent feed from spilling on the ground;

• Avoid using overgrazed pastures;

• Provide horses with a psyllium supplement for one week, monthly, as a preventive measure.

The most effective method of clearing sand from the gastrointestinal system, however, is to provide 2.5% of body weight per day in hay. The bulk alone is capable of removing almost 95% of ingested sand and proved better in controlled trials than psyllium, mineral oil, or wheat bran.

Ascending Colon Displacement: The ascending colon moves freely in the abdomen, so displacements are not uncommon. Medical treatment is possible, although many horses need surgery.

Post treatment horses should be fed in a similar manner as large colon impactions. Feed a good quality forage with long fibres to increase bulk in the colon and avoid concentrates for 10 to 14 days after treatment.

Diets of affected horses should be based on good quality fibre sources along with concentrate feeds low in sugars and grains. It is imperative that an adequate water supply is provided.

Large Colon Torsion: This severe and life threatening form of colic is always treated surgically. Post surgical feeding depends on the severity of the torsion (twist) and what the surgery entailed.

In horses treated early with minimal intestinal resection during surgery, feeding can begin as early as six to 12 hours after treatment. If the torsion is serious in nature and the veterinarian performs extensive surgery and resection, feeding will need to wait at least 12 to 24 hours. If some of the intestine has become ischemic (has a lack of blood flow), horses might not be able to eat for up to 48 hours post-surgery.

When the horse does eat, provide good quality forage for four to six hours. Feed intake can then be increased over the next few days, and the horse should be able to consume his full ration by the third day. Once the horse has been fully reintroduced to feed, it will require a highly digestible diet to maintain body condition. Special considerations for these horses include:

• The horse needs to consume good hay with quality protein content at a higher quantity than maintenance horses to prevent weight loss;

• Affected horses need to consume more water than healthy horses (sometimes up to eight litres more) to account for excess water loss in the faeces;

• As the digestive tract rebuilds itself, the need for a specialized diet will diminish;

• If needed, provide oil rather than more grains to encourage weight gain post-surgery.

Conclusion: It is important to note that, no two colic cases will resolve alike and, as such, each case requires individual treatment. Implementing management practices that could prevent colic, however, is always the best route to follow.

This article has been adapted from topics presented at the 2012 Kentucky Equine Research Conference, held May 17-18 in Lexington, Ky and discussed on The by Erica Larson.

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