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Feeding a Horse Recovering from ColicBy Kentucky Equine Research Staff · March 23, 2011

Because the signs and effects of colic can vary widely in severity and affect all types of horses, no concrete recommendations on feeding horses recovering from abdominal discomfort are available. How to feed a horse after it has colicked depends largely on where the colic occurred—in the small or large intestine—and if the horse had abdominal surgery to resolve the colic. However, some general guidelines may be useful.

Horses suffering from simple colic rarely need alterations to their diet. Food and water should be withheld during the colic episode. Most horses can return to their normal diet after the pain is resolved and there is evidence of fecal transit.

Postoperative horses have different requirements. Estimates for the increased energy requirement for horses due to abdominal surgery or shock are based on human information, which suggests an increase of 30-100% above maintenance, but this has not been verified in the horse.

The best type of feed or feeding time for a horse after severe distention or abdominal surgery for obstruction or strangulation has not been scientifically determined. In most cases a forage diet of hay or fresh grass is chosen and fed as soon as medical judgment suggests ingested food can be tolerated. Alternatives include pellet-type feeds consisting of alfalfa or total diet feeds. Grains and sweet feed are avoided to decrease the risk of excess fermentation causing gas production and concern for abrupt changes in intestinal flora by providing too much soluble carbohydrate, thereby increasing the risk of diarrhea or laminitis.

Feeding horses intravenously (called parenteral nutrition, using a solution of glucose, amino acids, and fat), though shown to be possible, has not been proven to be necessary to improve survival after abdominal surgery. A comparison of horses evaluated after abdominal surgery with or without supportive parenteral nutrition did not show a difference in outcome.

Parenteral nutrition should be considered immediately if ileus, shock, or peritonitis is predicted to prevent oral ingestion of feed for more than a few days. Some veterinarians have observed that parenteral nutrition has been responsible for reducing convalescence time and cost for horses in shock that are unable to tolerate enteral nutrition immediately after surgery.

Since total energy requirements may be decreased after surgery, partial parenteral nutrition (a solution of glucose and amino acids only) may be sufficient for short-term nutrient supplementation.

Read more from Advances in Equine Nutrition IV.

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