Equine Colic Season is Upon Us Once Again
Now that we are heading into late fall and early winter, we need to be aware that colic season is upon us again. We see horses with abdominal pain all year round of course, but the cooler temps bring with them certain stresses that are seen more commonly this time of year. Water intake is a big factor when it comes to constipation and impaction colics, which seem to be the most common ones we see. Colder temps, less sweating and exercise exhaustion, and possibly also less exercising over the winter months, will make horses feel less desire to drink their daily water intake requirements.
The average 1000-1200 lb horse should be drinking approximately 30-40 L of fresh water per day. In the winter, their intake may be less than half that, and this is combined with mainly dry forage intake in the form of hay. Everything is then drier in the gut. Gut motility can be affected by cold-temperature stress and feed changes, and hind gut bacteria needed for proper digestion can die off somewhat during times of stress, or in older age horses. Constipation and impaction colics outweigh other types of colics this time of year because of these factors. There are some things that can be done to reduce the risk of these issues.
Although horses can't be forced to actively drink more water, there are ways to encourage more consumption:
Adding 1-2 Tbsp salt to the grain each day can help stimulate thirst.
Providing a salt lick is often not enough as salt intake is then not consistent.
Soaking all grain before feeding can increase water intake a little, and adding soupy hay cube/roughage chunk/beet pulp mashes can be a great way to increase water intake by even several liters per day.
It is important to provide horses with unfrozen water throughout the winter, and ideally water should be slightly heated. When horses are already chilled and struggling to stay warm they will be less likely to drink ice cold water. It is also important therefore to ensure your horses have proper shelter from wind and rain/snow, and if their body condition and hair coat are not well suited for winter weather, adequate indoor housing or weatherproof blanketing can be helpful and is recommended.
It is a good idea to have your ration evaluated by a veterinarian or nutritionist going into winter to determine if supplementation with products such as vitamin/mineral supplements rich in B vitamins for gut and immune support, prebiotics, probiotics, or additional calories are warranted. Keep in mind that adding lots of grain in the winter may not be helpful, especially for horses that are already overweight and not in need of extra calories, or for those that are grain sensitive or insulin resistant. Horses generate the majority of their feed-related body heat through hindgut fermentation, which occurs in the large colon and cecum, and this involves healthy gut bacteria and their processing of roughage (not grain). Increasing hay intake via dry hay and soaked mashes is much more useful for helping horses stay warm in the cold months of winter.
Monitoring fecal output and fecal consistency is important this time of year to ensure that insufficient water intake is detected early on, and we would recommend watching your horses daily for any change in behavior, appetite, energy levels, and overall comfort levels. And finally, we recommend making sure your horse is on a regular deworming or fecal testing schedule to ensure that parasite burdens are low. This time of year we would worry about bot larvae residing in horse stomachs, and tapeworms or small strongyles having been picked up during grazing season. These can also contribute to abdominal disturbances and episodes of colic.
Please contact one of the equine veterinarians at Milverton-Wellesley Veterinary Services if you have any questions about this topic.