Disease Du Jour: The Inappetent Horse

sick horse stall low light
Horses that are inappetent need veterinary intervention quickly. iStock

How do you feed the inappetent horse? “Any time a horse doesn’t want to eat you should be concerned,” said Kelly Vineyard, MS, PhD, is a senior nutritionist with Equine Technical Solutions at Purina. “24-72 hours of feed deprivation you could have long-term systemic effects. If you have a sick horse with underlying disease in a hypermetabolic state, you have a shorter time to catabolic processes and muscle loss.”

Causes of Inappetent Horses

There are many things that might make a horse not want to eat, said Vineyard. She has found that the “Number one reason horses go off feed is that the owner is feeding too many supplements.”

She advised veterinarians as they are evaluating inappetent horses to take away all the supplements and see if the horse will eat.

The Number two reason if feed contamination,” said Vineyard. “If the whole varn won’t eat, look for mold or micotoxins.” She said getting a sample of the feed tested is important. “Get the date and code of the feed and report that to the manufacturer,” she advised.

There is a much longer list of health-related causes of inappetence in horses, said Vineyard. Those can include stress, gastric ulcers, fever, nutrient imbalances such as a B vitamin deficiency, microbes in the hind gut being disrupted, pain in the mouth or with teeth. Medications can also disrupt a horse’s appetite.

“Some horses on pergolide can lose their appetite,” she noted as an example.

Tips on Feeding

Vineyard said horses coming off of illness might have an appetite, but it isn’t “voracious.”

She recommended trying fresh, green grass. “If they won’t eat that, then they are still feeling pretty bad,” she said.

For horses that can have sweet feed, tempting them with feed that has molasses works well, Vineyard said.

“If you are feeding hay, alfalfa is the most palatable,” she noted. “It should be green and leafy.”

Giving a brand mash such as Purina RepleniMash can ensure the horse is getting a balance of nutrients. Vineyard said Omelene 400 that has beet pulp and molasses is also a great go-to for veterinarians to recommend. Of course many vets suggest senior feeds that are very palatable.

Vineyard said pelleted feeds are the least palatable, so veterinarians should keep that in mind when making recommendations.

If you need to “tempt” the appetite of a horse, Vineyard suggested things such as molasses, applesauce, chopped carrots and apples. “Some horses like bananas, and you can use carrot-flavored baby food,” she said.

Managing the Inappetent Horse

Vineyard reminded practitioners that there could be something in the environment that is causing stress or not allowing a horse to consume a full meal.

She advised experimenting where the affected horse is being fed in relation to other horses. “You can also experiment with meal size,” Vineyard said. “With senior horses, you might try smaller, more frequent meals.”

Acute Inappetence

If a horse can’t or won’t eat for 24-48 hours, you need to consider enteral feeding, noted Vineyard. “You can make homemade diets and mix them in a blender, but sometimes they block the feeding tube,” she said.

Many veterinarians have used the Purina WellSolve Well-Gel product, said Vineyard. “It’s a nutrient-dense enteral feeding program,” she said. “You can tube the horse two to three times a day.

“We encourage veterinarians to reach out to us if they are having issues with inappetent horses,” Vineyard said.

Palatability Testing

Vineyard also discussed the palatability testing facility at Purina and how it relates to discovering what horses like and don’t like. Palatability testing horses are “discerning,” said Vineyard, not “piggy.”

Final Words About Inappetence

Vineyard said any time a horse isn’t eating you need to figure out the reason. “Don’t go straight to changing the feed,” she advised. “Look for a medical reason.”

She said veterinarians can reach out to Purina nutrition experts for assistance in hospital or field feeding questions of equine patients. Resources for veterinarians can be found at equinevetnutrition.com.

About Kelly Vineyard, MS, PhD

Kelly Vineyard, MS, PhD, is a senior nutritionist with Equine Technical Solutions at Purina. She has played a role in developing many new products for Purina Equine, including Purina SuperSport Amino Acid Supplement. Dr. Vineyard holds a Master’s and a Doctoral degree in equine nutrition from the University of Florida and a Bachelor of Science from Auburn University. She joined Purina in 2008 as a Research Equine Nutritionist. Her published work includes articles in the Journal of Animal Science and the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, and a chapter in the textbook Equine Applied and Clinical Nutrition.

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