Why do I feel we see more colic symptoms when the weather changes?
Here in Southern California our weather patterns in the winter and spring months are very inconsistent. One-week daytime temperatures may be 85 degrees, then drop down to 60 degrees the following week. These, sometimes rapid temperature changes are hard for us to adapt to, and the same can be said for the horse. Two systems that take a little time to regulate to these changes are the G.I. system, and the thirst center in the brain.
When we go from warm weather down to colder weather in a short period of time, the horse isn’t stimulated to drink quite as much for the first 24-48 hours. However, the body still requires significant amounts of water for feed utilization, fermentation, and passage through the G.I. system. If the water intake doesn’t match the water lost during normal daily function, we can see mild dehydration begin. This in turn can lead to a dryer, firmer manure that can irritate the lining of the G.I. system, and/or move the manure through the intestinal tract at a slower rate. This is often referred to as a dehydration or impaction colic. Another complication is that as the feed material is sitting there, fermentation is still occurring which releases gas into the intestinal tract. Typically, as discomfort increases in the horse, the G.I. motility begins to slow down. As such, the gas being produced collects rather than be passed, causing more discomfort creating a loop that can be hard to break.
When we go from cooler weather up to hotter weather in a short period of time, similar events happen but often more rapidly as the body is using and losing water even faster.
Can we prevent some of these events? Absolutely! We can’t stop all of them, but we can help prevent some of the problems while the horse is adapting to temperature changes. I often recommend feeding a wheat bran mash or a soaked beat pulp mash to provide beneficial fiber and increased amounts of water into the G.I. system. We can also provide electrolytes such as salt to the diet to help stimulate the horse to drink more. Usually 1 tablespoon of regular table salt once or twice daily for a couple days can help significantly. Think about it this way: After eating a bag of salty potato chips we generally are thirstier. The horse is not any different.
Another trick is to wet down your horse’s hay. You don’t need to soak it, but wetting it down helps soften the hay, as well as provide more water in the G.I. system. This is greatly beneficial when feeding really dry, course hay which we do see more in the winter months.
Also, make sure your horses water buckets are cleaned regularly and have cool, clear, clean water. If the water in the bucket doesn’t taste good, they will be less likely to drink it.
Despite all of our preventative measures, we inevitably will still see horses’ colic. As there are many, many different causes to colic (a general term for a belly ache), it is always advisable to call your veterinarian. Other measures may be needed depending on the cause of the colic signs. In the case of impaction colic, nasogastric tubing and administering fluids and mineral oil (acts as a lubricant in the G.I. system), and the use of pain relieving medications are often required. Thankfully, with a few management changes during these changing weather periods, we can reduce the potential of colic significantly.
Clint McKnight, DVM