Farm Ireland

Tuesday 21 November 2017

Answer colic threats for an issue-free cold season

Keep horses' feeding and watering routines regular to limit their digestive woes this winter

Caitriona Murphy

Caitriona Murphy

Colic is the most likely cause of death in horses. It is a blanket term for any disease that causes abdominal pain and can occur all year round in all types of horses. However, horse owners and vets have always noted a link between certain types of colic and the time of year.

Between 2003 and 2006, the University of Liverpool conducted one of the biggest ever studies into colic. Twenty-three private equine hospitals and university clinics based in Britain, Ireland and the USA collaborated in this study and were responsible for notifying the university researchers of colic cases, while the owners and carers of 182 horses and ponies, which had undergone surgery for colic in these clinics, also agreed to participate in the study.

A further 665 questionnaires were completed by the owners and carers of other horses and ponies and used as a comparison to the research.

As part of the study, all the cases of colic were admitted to the University of Liverpool over a 10-year period to see if there were any seasonal patterns in hospital admission that consistently occurred each year.

The study found that colic admissions to the hospital and those treated medically or surgically showed a consistent peak in admissions in the spring and autumn months, coinciding with times of the year when changes in horses' stabling, turnout and feed are most likely to occur, together with changes in pasture quality.

Admission of horses with large colon impactions showed a peak in the winter months. This coincides with periods when horses are more likely to be stabled for longer and is a known factor that places horses at an increased risk of this type of colic.

Similar studies in the United States have also highlighted the increased risk of impaction colic in colder months.

It appears that the onset of cold weather causes three significant things to happen, and the combination of all three sharply increases the risk of impaction colic, which is often described as constipation in horses.

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Firstly, horses tend to drink less water in cold weather. This can be because they are not as thirsty, they are often not exercised as much and, sometimes, because their water has frozen over. The horses are also often eating forages that have lower moisture contents, for example hay or haylage instead of grass.

Individual horses vary, but the rule of thumb is that a 450kg idle horse should consume a minimum of 10-12ga of water a day for bodily functions. An average adult horse produces about 10ga of saliva a day to help soften and lubricate food. If water consumption drops, then saliva production therefore decreases.

This reduced water intake means the food in the digestive tract is much drier and more difficult to move, which can cause a blockage. Poor quality hay that is stemmy can also exacerbate the problem.

The second factor is that when the temperature drops in winter, owners are inclined to increase their animals' grain rations to meet the increased energy demands of keeping warm. This excess of carbohydrates to fibre can upset the normal digestive process.

Finally, the horse's digestive system depends on physical movement to help push food along, but a horse cooped up in a stable cannot move about as it would normally when grazing outdoors. Such confinement can slow the movement of food along the digestive tract and contribute to a blockage.

If diagnosed early, impaction colic can usually be treated and resolved without surgery.

Now that we know the risk factors for impaction colic during the winter, we can minimise the risk of it happening.

Water intake should be monitored, particularly in cold weather, and you could offer some water with the chill taken off if you think your horse is avoiding the icy water in its field trough. Where troughs are prone to freezing, ice must be broken every day to ensure the horse can drink the water.

Any changes to the horse's feeding regime must be made gradually over a period of one to two weeks. Sudden feeding change is one of the common causes of digestive problems.

Be aware that management changes, such as stabling for longer periods, reduced exercise and reduced turnout, will have an effect on the horse's gut. Ideally all horses should be turned out for several hours each day because that is what its body is designed for.

Finally, if you are concerned that your horse needs extra feed to generate more heat in a cold snap, offer it extra hay or another forage instead of another scoop of concentrate. Hay is a more efficient heating fuel than grain and forages do not produce a carbohydrate overload.

Telltale behavioural signs of colic

Mild pain

- Lip curling.

- Flank watching.

- Restlessness.

- Pawing at the ground.

Moderate pain

- Straddling as if to urinate.

- Lying down and getting back up again.

- Prolonged periods of lying on side.

- Occasional rolling.

Severe pain

- Violent rolling.

- Sweating.

- Rapid breathing.

- Intense pawing at ground.

- Swollen eyes and grazing of the body due to rolling.

Irish Independent