Recovering from Colic Surgery--Feeding and Nutrition Advice

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Surgery is one of those necessary evils. It helps your horse overcome whatever is ailing him, yet at the same time, it can give him a new list of concerns and ailments--pain, inflammation, risk of infection and suppressed immune function due to the hormonal changes that arise from enduring physical and mental stress.

Recovery from colic surgery is particularly challenging because the very route of nutrition--the digestive tract--is impaired. Things that your horse normally would eat, such as hay, may cause further harm. Surgery to the digestive tract leads to a decline in motility. Therefore, feed has to be gradually re-introduced, with small, frequent feedings of highly digestible feedstuffs, such as:

  • Fresh pasture. Pasture has less bulk and is more digestible than hay.
  • Alfalfa leaves. Alfalfa leaves offer protein and are well-tolerated in most cases.
  • Complete feed pellets. Pellets can be moistened and are fortified with vitamins and minerals.
  • Psyllium and beet pulp. Both offer water-soluble fiber.

Nutrient supplementation will make a difference. Some important guidelines:

  • Avoid soybean or corn oils. These are high in inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids. While inflammation has a role in healing, too much can create further damage, lengthen healing time, and cause excess pain.
  • Offer two sources of anti-inflammatory omega 3s--plant and fish oils. Ground flaxseed and chia seeds are balanced in their omega 3 to omega 6 content and contain the essential, alpha linolenic acid (ALA); fish oils contain eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). EPA and DHA can be made by the body from ALA, but adding extra will serve to aggressively reduce inflammation.
  • Provide high-quality protein for tissue repair. Grass hay does not provide all of the necessary amino acids. Supplement with alfalfa, or provide a protein supplement.
  • Add vitamins C and E as well as the herbs Curcumin and Boswellia. These are potent antioxidants, neutralizing damaging free radicals, thereby reducing inflammation and pain. This improves immune function, paving the way for recovery. Vitamin E also helps inhibit formation of adhesions.
  • Supplement B vitamins. These are necessary for rebuilding healthy tissue. It’s best to offer a B-complex preparation.
  • Add a probiotic. Antibiotics kill harmful bacteria, as well as beneficial hindgut bacteria. Offer a probiotic that contains billions (not millions) of colony forming units (CFUs).

Knowing what caused the colic problem will help avoid another episode. Colic can be prevented in many cases. Free-choice forage, eliminating cereal grains, movement (avoiding confinement to a stall) and stress reduction will go a long way toward keeping your horse healthy.

Juliet M. Getty, PhD, is an internationally respected, independent equine nutritionist who believes that optimizing horse health comes from understanding how the horse’s physiology and instincts determine the correct feeding and nutrition practices. She is available for private consultations and speaking engagements. Getty’s website, www.gettyequinenutrition.com, offers a generous stock of free, useful information for the horse person. Sign up for her free monthly newsletter, Forage for Thought; browse her library of reference articles; search her nutrition forum; and purchase recordings of her educational teleseminars. Plus, for the growing community of horse owners and managers who allow their horses free-choice forage feeding, Getty has set up a special forum as a place for support, celebrations, congratulations and idea sharing. Share your experiences at jmgetty.blogspot.com. Reach Getty directly at gettyequinenutrition@gmail.com.