Feeding Horses During Colic Recovery

Nutritional support of horses following a bout of colic is important, especially for hospitalized horses following colic surgery, noted Ray Geor, BVSc, MVSc, PhD, Dipl. ACVIM, professor, Paul Mellon Distinguished Chair, and director of Virginia Tech's Middleburg Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Middleburg, Va.

Geor discussed the topic of diet after colic at the 2007 American Association of Equine Practitioners Convention, held Dec. 1-5 in Orlando, Fla. There are arguments as to how much to feed following a colic attack or colic surgery. A horse needs nutrients for healing and immune function, but loading the bowels with feed (and the weight of the feed) might increase the chance for intestinal shutdown and colic relapse or for breakdown of the abdominal incision. It has been common practice to withhold feed initially and provide only water and possibly intravenous fluids and electrolytes to a horse that suffered from colic or colic surgery, then slowly re-introduce feed at a rate that allows the GI system to accommodate forage.

Geor advocated feeding a stall-maintenance ration (approximately 70% of maintenance needs) for two to four days after horses have colic surgery, increasing the ration continually until reaching a maintenance intake of digestible energy. A maintenance diet is one that accommodates basic physiologic functions without added demands of exercise, breeding, pregnancy, travel, illness, surgery, etc. (A horse in stall confinement needs even less energy for maintenance than a horse that is moving around all day on pasture.)

How a horse should be fed depends on the underlying cause of the colic incident, as well as the horse's appetite and extenuating complications that might arise in the recuperative phase.

Three avenues of nutritional support are available: 1) voluntary feeding, 2) assisted feeding, and 3) parenteral nutrition.

Geor stressed that how a horse should be fed depends on the underlying cause of the colic incident, as well as the horse's appetite and extenuating complications that might arise in the recuperative phase. A horse with a simple colic might have feed and water withheld during the episode, but as soon as the colic has resolved, the horse can return to a normal diet. Many practitioners advocate elimination of the grain portion of the diet for a few days to allow restoration of hindgut microbial function.

In contrast, following intestinal surgery feed should not be introduced until there is evidence that intestinal motility has been restored, and, even then, only small amounts (1 pound) of forage are offered at frequent intervals (four to six times a day). Increase the amount gradually and steadily based on the horse's response.

Another tactic is to offer pasture grazing for 20-40 minutes intermittently through the day or to offer pelleted senior feed, which is digestible and low bulk. For the two weeks following surgery, it is best not to offer grain so as not to further disrupt hindgut microbial activity. Reinstitution of grain begins with small amounts (2 pounds or less per day) and is increased gradually.

By the second or third day following surgery a horse should voluntarily consume at least 75% of stall-maintenance requirements in forage, i.e., 8 pounds of hay for a 1,000-pound horse. A horse that won't eat this amount of hay will need appetite stimulation with grass or other palatable, but highly digestible, feed, particularly if the horse is in poor body condition. If this fails to induce an appetite, then assisted feeding is necessary. This relies on administration by stomach tube of energy-dense pelleted feed, slurried and supplemented with fats. The volume given by stomach tube four to six times per day is slowly increased over several days to a target amount. Careful clinical monitoring is important to avoid stomach distention, intestinal shutdown, or laminitis.

The third strategy for nutritional support is that of parenteral nutrition, which is given intravenously through a catheter dedicated only to this purpose. This form of nutrition is particularly valuable for horses recovering from enteritis (intestinal inflammation) or from small intestinal surgery, particularly if a portion of small intestine has been removed. Once intestinal motility is restored with no gastric reflux, it is recommended to feed a highly digestible diet using fresh green grass or soft first-cutting hay and/or pelleted feed mashes, offering only very small meals every three to four hours.

Regarding large intestinal disorders, such as an impaction, feed should be withheld until the impaction has cleared. Grain should not be fed until it is evident that manure is passing regularly and in appropriate quantity and consistency. If large intestinal surgery was performed, it is important to monitor for diarrhea, as Geor reported the risk of diarrhea is increased twofold in horses with large intestinal disorders as compared to other intestinal problems. This risk increases if the large colon has undergone direct surgical invasion. There appears to be some mitigating effect on diarrhea when grass hay is fed. Hay can be offered starting 12 hours post-surgery, with small amounts of soft first-cutting grass hay given every two to three hours. Grain should be withheld for 10-14 days, but pelleted feed can be fed due to its low bulk.

Following extensive large colon resection (removal of a section), Geor noted that transit time of nutrients is altered so low-bulk feeds, such as pelleted feed, can be offered initially, followed by legume forage or a grass-legume hay mix. Additional calories can be obtained through high-fat concentrates (oil, rice bran, or supplements specifically high in fat) with avoidance of grains and sweet feed.

About the Author

Nancy S. Loving, DVM

Nancy S. Loving, DVM, owns Loving Equine Clinic in Boulder, Colorado, and has a special interest in managing the care of sport horses. Her book, All Horse Systems Go, is a comprehensive veterinary care and conditioning resource in full color that covers all facets of horse care. She has also authored the books Go the Distance as a resource for endurance horse owners, Conformation and Performance, and First Aid for Horse and Rider in addition to many veterinary articles for both horse owner and professional audiences.

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