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Minimizing the Risk of Colic

Pet Column for the week of June 7, 2010

Related information:

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Ashley Mitek
Information Specialist

Source - W. Michael Karlin, DVM
There is an old saying, "you can look at a horse cross-eyed and it will colic." The mantra highlights the fact that the malady, which simply implies abdominal discomfort, is one of the most common problems equine veterinarians deal with. Unfortunately, in many instances the cause is never found.

One veterinarian who sees such cases on a daily basis is Dr. Michael Karlin, an equine surgery resident at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana. He says, "not all cases of colic can be prevented, but there are ways to minimize the risk of it occurring."

Horses are creatures of habit, and one of the best ways to keep their gastro-intestinal tract happy is to follow a timely schedule. Feeding, exercising, and turning them out at the same time each day will go a long way in preventing abdominal upset. That said, maintaining such a consistent schedule may prove challenging for some owners, if not impossible.

Dr. Karlin mentions that an important preventive measure equine owners can take is to, "make sure your horse has routine health care maintenance, including yearly or bi-annual dental exams." Like older humans, older horses often need to be seen more frequently by a veterinarian for health issues. Very commonly, these issues involve their teeth.

If a horse's teeth are not aligned properly, or not floated routinely, they may attempt to swallow hay and grain without chewing it. Obviously, swallowing unchewed balls of food is asking for trouble. For example, that food can lodge in the intestine causing an impaction. Or in the esophagus, causing "choke," not to be confused with food lodged in the windpipe like happens in humans.

Speaking of food, because horses are exceptionally sensitive to molds and various bacteria, "feeding the appropriate amount of a good quality diet is critical," notes Dr. Karlin. Feeding too much grain can potentially be problematic. Experts suggest that owners should feed at least 60 percent of a horse's diet as roughage. In addition, keeping an eye on your horse's body condition is important to make sure they are not becoming overweight.

Because horses are, from an evolutionary standpoint, meant to forage many miles a day across open grasslands, mimicking that environment is desirable. The best-case scenario is to turn a horse out for the bulk of the day, allowing it to forage for several hours at a time. That is not always feasible in the real world though. At the least owners can provide hay around the clock to keep the horse's gut active. It also goes without saying that access to clean water at all times is essential.

With appropriate veterinary care, a proper diet, and adherence to a consistent turnout and exercise regime, the chance of colic can be reduced, though not entirely prevented. Once a horse does seem to act colicky, there are a few items to keep in mind that may reduce the severity. Dr. Karlin stresses the importance of, "frequent monitoring to catch problems early," before they progress into life-threatening emergencies.

Equine veterinarians would much rather examine a mildly colic horse, and treat the problem soon after it started, versus go out to a farm and realize that the situation is critical, requiring transport to a specialty institution.

For more information on preventing colic, contact your local equine veterinarian.