Nutrena Feeding Tips

Feeding Management Practices to Reduce the Risk of Colic

June 20, 2012

Roy A. Johnson --Technology Deployment Manager, Horse and Specialty Products--Cargill Animal Nutrition P.O. Box 5614, MS 14 Minneapolis, MN 55311

Colic is certainly one of the leading health problems facing owners and equine practitioners in North America. According to the USDA‘s National Health Monitoring System (NAHMS) Equine ’98 Study, about 4% of horses colic each year. Colic rates for Thoroughbreds were even higher in this study. Colic rated second only to old age as a cause of death in equines. Over 13 % of businesses surveyed reported colic in 1997 for animals 6 months of age or older. This incidence rate puts colic in third place behind injury/wounds/trauma and leg/hoof problems.

As veterinarians and owners are all too well aware, colic treatment can be an expensive and uncertain proposition, particularly if surgery is involved. Colic treatment and surgery can easily range in cost from $2500.00 to several thousand dollars with varying prospects of success depending on the cause of the colic and the length of time before the horse is taken into surgery. Horses also do not seem to colic during regular business hours! Other health problems, particularly laminitis, which may follow colic, can be devastating to the horse owner as well.

Colic is frequently defined as abdominal pain, manifested by symptoms ranging from restless appearance, pawing and sweating to extreme pain with the animal laying down and thrashing wildly. The symptoms and underlying causes can vary greatly, complicating diagnosis and treatment.

According to the NAHMS Equine ’98 study, horse owners most commonly reported “unknown” causes for colic, followed by gas colic and feed-related colic. There may well be a number of feeding management practices that fit into the “unknown” category. Dr. Noah D. Cohen et. al. did an extensive survey of colic cases reported in Texas and published an article, “Dietary and Other Management Factors Associated With Colic in Horses”, published in the JAVMA, Volume 215, Number 1, July 1, 1999. This study reported gas colic as the most common, followed by impaction of the large colon and undiagnosed or unknown type.

Feeding management practices can have a significant impact on the types of colic described above. Because there are implications of “non-feeding management” factors on feeding management, these factors have been included at the head of the following list:

A well-designed parasite control program based on sanitation in stalls and pastures as well as appropriate use of de-wormers is still a key element of a successful feeding management program. Fortunately, there has been improvement in this area over the last two decades in both product availability and owner awareness.

Unfortunately, some of the improvements in parasite control resulted in a decline in dental care in some cases. Back in the days when it was routine to tube worm horses twice a year, most practitioners also checked teeth at the same time. With the advent of oral paste and feed additive de-wormers, dental care suffered for many horses. Owner education in this area has been improving, but there are still a fair number of horse owners who do not provide routine dental care for their horses. Lack of dental care can create both health and training problems for the horse.

Almost every feed tag and feeding recommendation in circulation emphasizes the need to have fresh clean water available at all times and to water horses after exercise gradually in the cool down process. Availability of free-choice salt, preferably loose salt, may be included in this recommendation as well as in other areas of nutrition. Without adequate salt, water consumption may be lower than desired for optimum gut health. Decreased water intake can contribute to impaction colic.

Interestingly, in Dr. Cohen’s study, changes in forage were associated with the incidence of colic much more than changes in the grain portion of the diet or any other single factor. Given that forage is 50-90% of the diet for most horses, this is fairly logical. Going from a poor quality forage, which would be low in digestible energy (DE) and high in neutral detergent fiber (NDF), to a high quality forage, which would be higher in DE and lower in NDF, would certainly present a change to the micro-flora in the hind gut and could cause some gastric disturbances leading to colic. Going from high quality forage to low quality forage could also lead to impaction colic, particularly if dental care and water intake are marginal. In this study, the type of concentrate fed was not associated with colic. The common statement “My horse has colic, it must be the feed,” may refer more to the forage in the diet than to the concentrate in the diet.

This should perhaps be more accurately termed starch and sugar overload and is a leading cause of gas colic and some forms of laminitis. Nutritionists are more likely to use the term Non-Fiber Carbohydrate (NFC) or Non-Structural Carbohydrate to define the amount of starch and sugar in a diet. Undigested starch and/or sugar reaching the hindgut can be one of the leading causes of gas colic and contributes to the incidence of laminitis following colic. The starch and sugar ferment rapidly, causing gas production, a drop in the pH of the gut, a change in the micro-flora population of the gut and the production of endotoxins. The risk of grain overload can be reduced in several ways:

1. Do NOT let the horses get out and eat in the grain bin! Owners need to use secure feed storage areas.

2. Limit the amount of grain/concentrate fed per feeding to 0.5% of bodyweight or less. Split the total into at least 2 or more feedings per day as needed.

3. Feed hay continuously or at least 2 hours prior to feeding grain.

4. If high levels of a grain/concentrate need to be fed, use products with higher fiber levels and added fat from vegetable oil sources.

5. Consider adding a high fat supplement if high-energy intakes are required to maintain body condition rather than just adding grain. DE from digestible fiber and from oil is less likely to create problems than DE from high NFC levels.

6. Limit access to rapidly growing pasture. Lush pastures can be high in fructans, a form of plant sugar. These fructans function like starch and sugar from grains and can create the same problems in the hindgut of the horse.

The trend in commercial feed production is toward lower protein, higher fiber and higher fat products; particularly in those products going to performance horses that are going to have higher concentrate intakes.

Probiotics, which includes both Direct-Fed Microbials and Yeast products, can be beneficial in a number of circumstances. Direct-Fed Microbials (DFM) include live bacteria such as Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus casei etc. These help maintain the population of beneficial bacteria in the hindgut. Horses that are under stress or that have been on antibiotics may benefit from DFM addition. Yeast culture or yeast also helps maintain the microbial population and may improve fiber digestion.

Improvements in feeding management, including all of the above factors, can be extremely useful in reducing the losses horse owners sustain from colic. Colic prevention is an area where prevention is clearly much better than treatment.


NAHMS Equine Study 1998
Centers for Epidemiology and Animal Health
555 South Howes
Fort Collins, CO 80521

Cohen, Noah D. VMD, MPH, PhD, DACVIM, Gibbs, Pete G. PhD, Woods, April, BS, “Dietary and other Management Factors Associated with Colic in Horses”, JAVMA, Volume 215, No. 1, July 1, 1999.

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