It’s long been known that the best way to prevent ulcers in horses is to make sure they have something to eat—preferably forage—nearly constantly. But what happens if feed and hay are withheld to not exacerbate a problem, like colic?

Drs. Jaclyn Willette, Dipti Pitta, Nagaraju Indugu, Bonnie Vecchiarelli, Meagan Hennessy, Tamara Dobbie and Louise Southwood found that the bacterial population of a horse’s gut changes if he has been without food for at least 10 hours.

Chronic gastrointestinal disease leads to a decrease in variety of bacterial species in the gut of humans and cattle; the same is thought to be true for horses.

The bacteria in a colicking horse’s gut is distinctly different from that in a healthy horse’s gut. While this could be related to intestinal problems and inflammation that is leading to the colic epsiode, other factors could be at play, including withholding feed, which is an essential tool in managing a horse with colic.

The study team used eight mares for a crossover study that withheld nearly all feed for 24 hours and then allowed each horse free-choice timothy hay for 24 hours. The horses had access to water at all times.

The researchers found that bacteria richness and diversity were significantly lower 10 to 24 hours after the fast began. This limited bacterial population persisted for 2 to 12 hours after the horses were given access to hay. The horse’s gut returned to normal 18 to 24 hours after the hay was reintroduced.

The team concluded that the effect of withholding feed should be considered when interpreting data on species and amount of gut bacteria in horses. Their findings may help locate markers that will lead to the development therapeutic interventions for horses that are colicking.

Read the study here.

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