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Colic: focus on prevention

I did some research on colic for the January health issue but wanted to check my information with a veterinarian. In the process, I missed my deadline! Dr. Clint Unruh was kind enough to read over my research for medical accuracy, and he offered a few helpful comments, which I’ve included.Horses may be large and powerful, but they are susceptible to a variety of physical problems that can be hard to prevent. Theyíre especially vulnerable to digestive problems. A horseís digestive system consists of so many twists and turns that itís easy to see why colic is the No. 1 killer of horses.nìThe term ìcolicî technically refers to abdominal pain,î said Dr. Clint Unruh of Colorado Equine Veterinary Services. ìThe most common form of colic is caused by gastrointestinal problems.î Serious forms of colic include displacement, when the intestines shift into an unnatural position, and torsion, when the intestines twist. The bad news is that these serious conditions often require surgery, which is both expensive and risky. The good news is that the most common types of colic involve digestive issues that are much easier to resolve and from which your horse can completely recover. In the early stages of colic; however, itís hard to tell the difference between various types. Thatís why itís important to take all signs of colic seriously.Since there are so many different types of colic, itís impossible to isolate a single set of causes. A study by Dr. Noah Cohen at Texas A&M University in 1999 pointed to three horse management practices that can contribute to colic onset. A recent change in a horseís diet, especially a change in the type of hay fed, was associated with increased risk. A change in stabling and a change in levels of exercise also seemed to be associated with increased incidence of colic. So horse owners should pay special attention to signs of colic when they make any change in their management practices.According to an article in the December 2006 issue of Equus, a study by researchers at the University of Liverpool correlates the occurrence of colic with certain months of the year. As many horse owners have suspected, this study found that colic tends to occur more often during early spring and late fall. So changes in the season also affect our horsesí digestive functions.Colic should always be considered a medical emergency, so call your vet immediately if you suspect colic. Symptoms include pawing the ground, kicking or biting at the belly, yawning, restlessness, sweating in the absence of exercise, repeatedly curling the upper lip, standing stretched out, lying down and rolling. An increase in respiration and an elevated pulse rate may also indicate colic, so itís a good idea to know how to check your horseís vital signs. A normal equine temperature is between 99 and 100.8 degrees F., a normal heart rate is 30 to 42 beats per minute, and a normal respiration rate is 8 to 16 breaths per minute.After you call the vet, take all food away from your horse but leave water. Your horse needs to conserve his energy, so if he will stand or lie quietly, leave him alone. If he rolls continuously, try to walk him around, but walk slowly and try not to tire him out. Itís better not to give your horse any pain-killing drugs, since the drugs could mask important information that your vet will need to know.Once your vet arrives, treatment will depend on the horseís condition and the symptoms he presents. There are good sources of information on the Web, in magazines or in libraries. The best resource, of course, is your vet. As I read more about colic, what I most wanted to know was how I could manage my horseís care so that the risk of colic would be reduced.Obviously diet has a major impact. Your horse should be consuming a high quality diet of at least 2 percent of his body weight in roughage (good quality hay and pasture) and avoid feeding excessive grain. Maintain a daily feeding routine and stick to it, and several small feedings during the day are much better than one big feast. Be sure to provide lots of fresh, clean water at all times. Check hay for signs of contamination, infestation or rotting. Donít feed hay directly on the ground if you can help it ñ your horse will eat sand along with the hay, leading to sand colic (impaction).With the help of your vet, set up a good parasite control plan. Itís also a good idea to use fecal egg counts to check the effectiveness of a worming program.Exercise and/or turnout every day is important, as horses that are stalled are at a much higher risk for colic.Make changes in diet, stabling or exercise routines gradually. Changes cause stress, which puts your horse at risk for intestinal problems. If youíre changing barns or traveling, itís a good idea to take along the hay your horse is accustomed to eating. ìYou can mix the old hay with the new,î Unruh said. ìAnd gradually change over to the new hay during a two-week period.îOne last tip: If you can afford it, get major medical insurance for your horse. ìTypical costs for colic surgery range from $4,500 to $10,000,î Unruh said. ìThe average cost is around $7,500 with aftercare.î Certain colics are just a matter of bad luck, and if your horse is seriously ill and needs surgery, itís a great relief to know you can give him the care he needs.

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