Springtime Colic: What to Watch For and How to Prevent It

Feb 08, 2011
Preventative/Preparedness colic

Colic refers to any number of gastrointestinal and/or abdominal health issues that may cause pain or discomfort and can even result in death. Clinical symptoms of colic range from mild signs of discomfort to violent, painful reactions in the horse. As winter weather wanes and the days begin to lengthen, many horses' exercise routines increase and pasture may become available once again and diets change, all of which can predispose a horse to colic.

Clinical Signs of Colic

  • Depression
  • Lack of appetite (even for one meal)
  • Decreased water consumption
  • Decreased or lack or manure production (8 hours or more without passing manure)
  • Loose manure or diarrhea
  • Symptoms of discomfort such as pawing, kicking at belly, looking at flanks and/or rolling on the ground

Preventative Strategies

Dental Care

  • Make sure your horse has regular dental care so they can chew and digest their food properly. Dental malocclusion and/or pathology are common causes of impaction colic. Horses should have their teeth checked and floated annually.

Feeding

  • Ideally, horses should be kept in as natural an environment as possible. High-quality pasture is an excellent diet if not deficient in proper vitamins and minerals (supplementation may be required if this is the case). In the wild, horses graze approximately 18 hours per day. If your horse is confined to a stall or paddock with no pasture, grass hay is best fed free-choice unless your horse is on dietary restriction for physiologic conditions or obesity. This option does not always work for all horses or all owners.
  • If your horse requires meal-times, it is best to split hay feedings into at least 3 meals a day. Divide any necessary concentrate/grain rations into two or more smaller feedings rather than one large feeding per day as this can overload the horse’s gastrointestinal tract. Before turning your horse out on pasture or feeding a new load of hay, check for the presence of mold, noxious weeds and/or toxic plants.
  • When making feed changes, do so gradually over a period of 10-14 days. Changes in hay type often cause gas colic which can lead to displacements and torsions. Rapid changes can also result in an imbalance in normal gut flora which may lead to gas colic or colitis. One way to mitigate gut flora imbalance is by administering a high quality daily probiotic (such as Probios, Benebac, or similar product). Live yogurt cultures can be helpful as well, but keep in mind that horses are lactose intolerant and dairy products can cause diarrhea.
  • Avoid feeding excessive amounts of concentrates – the majority your horse’s caloric intake (1 to 1.5% of body weight) is best supplied via hay or forage to promote a healthy gastrointestinal environment.
  • Sand impaction is common in New Mexico and other desert climates. Avoid feeding horses on the ground, especially if sand is present in the environment. The best way to avoid sand intake is to place hay or feeders on rubber mats which are swept off daily.
  • Provide fresh, clean water at all times. Many impactions are a result of decreased water intake. With daytime temperatures increasing in the spring, horses will require more water, but may not actually drink the amount they need if nights are still cool. If you are still experiencing freezing temperatures, heated waterers or floating tank de-icers are necessary to keep water from freezing as many horses will not drink frozen or even icy water.
  • A warm, soupy bran mash can be given when the temperature drops dramatically to help keep your horse’s bowels moving and increase the amount of water a horse consumes. 1 pint of bran + 1 pint of their regular grain or pellets + 1 gallon of warm water.

Exercise and Stress

  • Stick to a daily routine – consistent feeding and exercise regimens will help to decrease the incidence of colic.
  • Provide exercise and/or turnout daily. With springtime exercise routines increasing, make sure the intensity and duration of exercise changes gradually.
  • Reduce stress if at all possible, especially as the show season picks up. Horses experiencing changes in their environments or workloads, especially when traveling to shows, are likely to experience a significant amount of stress which can lead to gastric ulceration and symptoms of colic.

Parasites

  • Work with your veterinarian to develop a regular parasite control regimen which may include fecal exams and deworming as gastrointestinal worms can cause colic.

If you think your horse may be showing signs of colic, call your veterinarian. Information that he or she will find useful prior to their arrival are your horse’s heart rate (pulse), respiratory rate, temperature, mucous membrane (gum) color and hydration status. Keep in mind that many uncomplicated cases of colic can be avoided using the above guidelines for prevention. However, more severe types of colic can occur and some are unavoidable regardless of how well-managed a horse’s care, diet and environment are. If you have any questions about symptoms of colic or if you think your horse is showing signs of colic, your veterinarian can best advise you on a treatment plan and preventative strategies.

Jessica Marsh

Written by Jessica Marsh, DVM