Colic isn’t a specific disease, but rather a term to describe abdominal pain that can be caused by several sources. Colic can present itself as a mild discomfort, or it can be extremely serious: Major intestinal disruptions, including blockages, twists and ruptures, are usually fatal unless surgery to remove or repair the diseased area of gut succeeds.
Colic symptoms afflict between 4 – 11% of horses annually. Of those afflicted, surgery is performed on about 1% and mortality rates are approximately 11%. Owners in the US spend a whopping $115,000,000 on colic treatments every year. (Sources: http://www.horseadvice.com and Wikipedia.)
According to an article in Thoroughbred Times,
A change of diet in the two weeks preceding the episode, particularly a change of hay, was the most likely cause of colic cited by 145 veterinarians reporting on more than 1,000 horses that colicked in a 1997-’98 Texas survey of dietary and other management factors associated with colic. Not surprisingly, the Texas study found that a previous history of colic, especially abdominal surgery for colic, predisposed horses to further episodes.
Weather changes during the three days prior to the colic episode, a recent change in stabling, poor or erratic parasite control, or administration of a deworming product during the seven days prior to the colic episode were also identified as factors associated with an increased risk of colic. Horses that were pastured with free access to a plentiful water source, stalled less than half the time, and received no exercise other than ambling around their pasture had a much lower risk of colic.
The good news is that you can take precautions that will help minimize your horse’s risk of colic.
- Make all changes in diet slowly, so that dietary changes are less likely to affect the horse’s intestinal bacteria. If your horse is traveling or you bring a new horse home, try to bring as much of the feed that it’s used to as possible so you can transition the horse over a period of several days to a week.
- Provide as much turnout as possible. A Texas study found that horses pastured with free access to a plentiful water source, stalled less than half the time, and receiving no exercise other than ambling around their pasture had a low risk of colic.
- Keep your horse hydrated by providing constant access to clean water. Horses who spent as little as one to two hours exercising in a paddock without access to water showed a greatly increased risk of developing colic. At times when you are concerned that your horse might not drink enough, you can add some salt to his feed. I do this on a regular basis. You can also soak their grain (or feed soaked beet pulp). My horse gets “soup” for every meal.
- Feed a forage-based diet, that minimizes grains and concentrates. A study conducted by the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine found that horses that consumed less than 5.5 pounds of grain concentrate daily were less likely to develop colic, while those who received most of their caloric intake from grain, rather than fiber, were at higher risk. If you need to add more calories, consider adding a fat source rather than feeding more grain.
- Feed hay before you feed grain. If your horse eats grain first, the forage can push the undigested grain into the hindgut. This disrupts the gut pH, making it more alkaline which can kill good bacteria.
- Provide access to forage as much of the day as possible. If a horse has no food for as little as 12 hours its intestinal lining can become irritated, which leads to ulcers.
- Do not feed moldy hay or grain.
- Feed processed grains such as extruded feeds, rolled/crimped oats, pelleted feeds, etc. which are easier to digest.
- If you live in a sandy area, try to keep food off the ground to limit intake of sand.
- Worm your horse regularly.
- Consider feeding a probiotic to help maintain a healthy gut.
- Feed on a regular schedule . . . or no schedule at all. Reducing stress can reduce the incidence of colic. When horses are used to being fed on a schedule, a delayed meal can cause anxiety. As stress hormone levels rise and digestive juices flow in anticipation of feeding, the chance of digestive upset increases. My own horse is fed on a very loose schedule but is given plenty of hay. Certainly he looks forward his meals but does not get upset if they aren’t fed at a specific time.
Tips on Recognizing Colic Symptoms