Colic Prevention: Proven tips to reduce risk
The NAHMS (National Animal Health Monitoring System) Equine ?8 Study found the incidence
of colic in the US horse population to be 4.2 events/100 horses per year, 11% of
colic cases were fatal, 1.4% resulted in surgery and the annual cost was estimated
to be $115,300. The point: colic is a common, expensive and potentially fatal condition
in horses that owners should try to prevent through proven management strategies.
Let’s review what colic looks like, how it’s diagnosed and treated, then get into
"Colic" refers to abdominal pain in horses that may be caused by a number
of different problems. The American Association of Equine Practitioners brochure
"Colic: Understanding the digestive tract and its function" includes this
list of clinical signs:
Because your horse has a better chance of recovery the sooner treatment is started,
contact your veterinarian right away if you notice any of these signs. He or she
will perform a complete physical examination--including rectal palpation and stomach
tube passage--to find out what’s causing the pain and provide relief. For mild colics,
medical treatment includes the pain-relieving flunixin meglumine, the new antispasmodic
Buscopan, and xylazine, which sedates and relaxes muscles. Oral or IV fluids may
be given, as well as mineral oil as a laxative.
- looking at, kicking or biting the abdomen
- stretching out as if to urinate without doing so
- repeatedly lying down and getting up
- rolling, especially violent rolling
- sitting in a dog-like position, or lying on the back
- not eating or drinking
- lack of bowel movements
- absent or reduced digestive sounds
- elevated respiration or pulse rate
- lip curling (Flehmen response)
If response to medical treatment is poor, vital signs are deteriorating, or your
veterinarian feels an entrapment, displacement or torsion, he or she may refer your
horse to a hospital for surgery. Sometimes the only way to diagnose the cause of
abdominal pain is to perform exploratory surgery.
So how can you try and prevent colic in the first place? Dr. Noah Cohen is an associate
professor at Texas A & M University’s College of Large Animal Medicine and Surgery.
He has organized studies of the causes of colic into four main areas (5th edition
of Current Therapy in Equine Medicine):
Diet and feeding
"Changes in diet, specifically changes in the batch, type or amount of hay
and in the type or amount of concentrate, are associated with an increased risk
of colic." Some horse owners have only been concerned about being careful when
changing their horses?grain, but this finding shows that owners must also take care
when switching hay.
"Turnout of horses onto lush pasture may predispose to colic, and changing
pastures also may be associated with colic." Just like when changing hay, horse
owners should take care when rotating between pastures because the type of forage
may vary considerably. Consider adding a digestive supplement with probiotics, enzymes
and other helpful ingredients to assist your horse during transitions.
Stabling and housing
"Increased time being stalled is a risk factor for impaction of the large colon."
Daily turnout or exercise is good for horses on a number of levels. When it is not
possible due to lameness, weather or other reasons, owners should make sure their
horses stay sufficiently hydrated.
"Lack of access to adequate fresh water is a risk factor for colic." Studies
show horses with access to grass or hay but not water had a higher incidence of
colic than horses which were able to eat and drink at the same time. In the winter,
horses will drink more water if it is warmed, which is one strategy to encourage
drinking. Another is to topdress feed with electrolytes, which stimulates thirst.
"Both increases and decreases in activity levels may be associated with colic."
However, it is difficult to blame colic on changes in activity alone because many
times changes in exercise go hand-in-hand with changes in stalling and feeding.
For example, a horse that becomes lame may be prescribed stall rest and hay only
when he was used to daily riding and turnout on pasture. This is another time when
a digestive supplement may be helpful in maintaining a healthy GI tract.
Veterinary health management
"Regular administration of an anthelmintic, rather than infrequent purging
of parasites, appears to decrease the risk of colic." It makes sense that using
a daily dewormer to prevent infestation and migration of parasites would prevent
colic due to inflammation of the gut wall or GI blood vessels. Farms that perform
regular fecal examinations have also been shown to have a reduced incidence of colic.
"In the UK, strong evidence exists that tapeworms are associated with ileal
impactions and other forms of colic." Although the incidence of tapeworms in
the US varies by region, dewormers that contain praziquantal (or the new TapeCare
Plus with pyrantel pamoate) have been proven to control this parasite.
Colic Prevention: Proven tips to reduce risk
By: Lydia F. Gray, DVM, MA
SmartPak Staff Veterinarian and Medical Director