Cold Weather and Colic

March 12, 2014 11:47 pm by: Category: Blog, Breaking, colic, TEVA Articles Leave a comment A+ / A-

A few weeks ago, TEVA attended to many impaction colics, and as the weather shifts again, we expect to see more. These life threatening colics can be avoided. Please take a moment to review this information. If you have any questions or concerns, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

Thank you, Dr Jay and the TEVA Team

The fall is a time of lovely colors, family get-togethers, and winding down the busy show season. However, fall is often a time of increased colic calls to veterinarians. While not all colic episodes can be prevented, paying attention to equine management can go a long way to decrease the incidence and the suffering of episodes.

Colic, which is actually not a disease itself but a sign of stomach pains, can be caused by many different factors so it is well worth every horse owner’s time to learn all they can about prevention of this syndrome.

Jay Joyce, DVM, is an equine veterinarian who has been in practice for many years and has seen many horses for episodes of colic during this time.

“A lot depends on the weather as the temperature swings can result in frozen or ice-covered water,” Joyce says. “This can result in horses drinking less water. At this time of year, they are also shifting from a high moisture diet (grass) to a low moisture diet (dried hay). Make sure the horse has (fresh, thawed) water available as sometimes the water may freeze during the night and not melt until late morning.”

Paying attention now will help you prevent impaction colic from developing as a result of diet and weather changes and the lack of water intake.

A few additional points to keep in mind when reviewing cold weather and colic:

Watch out for poisonous plants. Ingestion of poisonous plants could be a higher risk in the fall as hungry horses are looking for grass that is diminishing. They might start eating other plants such as red maple, and others. Pay attention to what your horses are eating, to ensure they are getting adequate forage from either the grass or the hay. Take the time to inspect your pastures and clean out weeds to reduce risk.

Increasing forage intake and changing forage sources. The fall is a time of change from moisture rich summer pastures to dried hay. Try to make this transition in a gradual manner without sudden changes to the diet. The horses guts need about two weeks to shift over to different forages to reduce the risk of colic.
Always have fresh, clean water available. Water needs might increase as a result of the dry grass and increased hay being consumed so make sure there is lots of fresh, clean water available 24 hours per day. Observe your horses’ behavior to ensure that all horses are able to access the water, as sometimes in small paddocks one horse could prevent other horses from getting to the food and water sources.

Check water temperature. Keep an eye on the water, and provide heated water buckets when the temperature is dropping rapidly. Monitor the amount of water consumed so that you can act in a preventive manner if there is a decrease in water consumption.

Monitor hydration. Dehydration increases the risk of impaction colic. Monitor the horse for any signs of dehydration. Discuss the best ways to do this with your veterinarian. A “skin pinch” on the shoulder of the horse is a useful tool to assess hydration by seeing if there is any delay in the skin flattening back down (this is called skin tenting). Slowed skin response can indicate a degree of dehydration. Knowing this, you can add water to concentrate ration and/or soak the hay for 10 minutes prior to feeding to help bring more water into the gut. You could also discuss with your vet or equine nutritionist the use of soaked and shredded beet pulp as an addition to the diet for getting more water into the digestive system.

Have a parasite prevention program. Talk to your veterinarian about appropriate fecal testing and parasite control. The “shotgun” approach to deworming horses is often ineffective and parasite loads can be a high risk for colic.

Colic can strike at any time and has many known–and some not-so-well-understood–risk factors. The fall and winter seasons themselves are known risk factors and there are several things you can do to decrease your horse’s likelihood of developing colic. As pastures dwindle in the fall and the horse must switch to a different diet, two major factors are at play. One is the fact there is a different diet. The other is change in moisture level of the diet.

Most owners know they should transition slowly when adding or changing grains and other concentrates. However, it is important to realize that a change in forage, including hay types, should also be made gradually. This is because the protein, sugar, and starch components of hay are digested in the small intestine and–while digestive enzymes there can successfully adjust to changes–it doesn’t happen overnight.

Additionally, hays contain a variety of fiber types and complex plant carbohydrate compounds that can only be fermented in the large intestine. The bacteria and yeasts in the large intestine work together to efficiently ferment. For example, some species will ferment starch, sugars, and fructans into lactate while others will use that lactate as their fuel, preventing acidosis that could harm the fiber fermenting organisms. The population of organisms in the large intestine will mirror the food that is presented to them but efficient adaptation takes time. Allow at least 5 to 7 days to make a complete change.

If that sounds complex, it is. The moral of the story is to avoid rapid changes in diet, including substituting hay for grass and changing hay types. Disruptions in organisms that occur with rapid changes can cause gas, possible displacement of the colon, diarrhea from incomplete fermentation, and even changes in how well the intestine contracts and moves food along.

Inadequate water consumption is the leading cause of impaction and another risk factor for winter colic. An average size horse needs to consume about 10 gallons of water daily even in very cold weather because for much of their journey through the bowel, intestinal contents have a high moisture level, much like soup. In addition to what the horse drinks, fluids are actively secreted along the intestinal tract, then reabsorbed in the terminal portions of the colon. The fluid keeps things moving freely and allows for good mixing, which assists in absorption and fermentation.

But how can you keep them drinking in cold weather? The horse is most likely to drink while, or shortly after, eating hay, so hay and water should be placed close together. Warm water is consumed more readily. At the very least, water should never be allowed to freeze over. To encourage drinking, add at least one ounce of salt to the feed daily, or dissolve and spray on the hay for picky horses. Intake can be increased by adding warm water to pellets, hay cubes, and even sweet feeds. Adding some wheat bran improves appeal. Beet pulp is ideal because it can hold four times its weight in water.

The final colic risk factor, especially in winter, is inactivity. Avoid reducing turnout by stalling the horse unless weather is really severe. When conditions are so bad the horse is barely moving, ensuring adequate water intake goes a long way toward preventing impaction colic.

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