Feeding Horses During Colic Recovery

What’s the best way to feed a horse when his GI tract isn’t yet quite right after colic or colic surgery?
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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

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Written by:

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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