Ask The Vet: Colic

Answered by,  Amy Constantine, DVM, Antioch, Tenn.
Courtesy of AAEP

Question: Can colic be prevented and if so, how? What makes a horse more susceptible to colic and what are indicators that my horse might be colicking? 

Answer: Unfortunately, there is no way to 100% prevent a horse from colicking because there are such a wide variety of causes. Colic, at its most basic means “abdominal pain,” and this can vary from a simple gas colic to a strangulating intestinal lesion that requires surgery. I think the main thing that makes horses susceptible is frequent or rapid changes in feeding or activity level. Feed changes include getting a new batch of hay because even if it’s from the same grower, the nutrition level may be very different from the previous batch. A horse’s intestinal tract contains lots of bacteria that are critical to the efficient digestion process, and changing feed too quickly can alter this bacterial population in a bad way. Signs of colic include pawing, looking back at the flank, sweating, inappetence, frequent laying down and getting up, and rolling. If your horse is showing any of these signs, call your veterinarian immediately.

Question: Should a colic exam include a rectal examination? If one is not done, how can the cause be determined in the field? 

Answer: Practitioners differ on this question. Some vets include it with every colic workup no matter what, and others include it only when they need to go a step further into the problem. Whether a rectal is done depends on the situation, how severe the colic episode is, if an exam can be done safely for both the doctor and the horse, etc. If the horse is mildly colicky or will not tolerate rectal palpation without sedation, I may not do a rectal as part of my initial diagnostics. The potential risks of any rectal exam do include death from a tear so for me, I am more likely to pass a stomach tube before doing a rectal. Even when a rectal is done, you can’t always determine the cause of colic based on that alone since no one’s arm is long enough to feel all of the internal organs; it’s used as part of the whole clinical exam.

Question: Is there any research to support the practice of prophylactic oil drenching to prevent sand colic?

Answer: The only product I am aware of that is reported to help with sand accumulation is psyllium.

Question: My 5-year-old Mustang gelding is currently being fed one flake of alfalfa hay, twice daily. I want to switch him over to grass hay. How should I go about this to avoid having him colic? 

Answer: The best way is to do it gradually over the course of about 10-14 days to allow his system time to acclimate to the new food. This can be done by starting with a few handfuls of grass hay for a couple days added to his alfalfa meal, then a quarter flake, half a flake, etc. while decreasing the amount of alfalfa until the ratio becomes all grass hay.

Question: Is there any merit to claims that chia seeds are helpful for equine ulcers, in either fore or hindgut? 

Answer: I’m not aware of any research in horses about chia seeds and ulcers. I looked on one company’s site (Equine Chia), and they seem to be promoting its use based on results in people (who have very different digestive tracts from horses) and on the Omega-3 properties, which are known to be anti-inflammatory. The only real proven treatment for gastric ulcers is Gastrogard.