What is Cribbing?
Cribbing in horses, also known as crib-biting and wind sucking, is a behavioral condition for the most part rather than a systemic condition. It is believed that this habit, which is estimated to involve approximately 5% of horses, may be the result of certain environmental and living conditions. Many veterinarians also believe that the horse’s genetics, its diet, the horse’s personality and some weaning conditions may also have an impact on the development of this habit. Veterinary professionals do not feel that it is a habit that is learned from other horses. It is, however, a habit which can have some health implications that must be considered by the owners if it is allowed to persist.
Also referred to as wind sucking, cribbing can be described as the horse gulping air at the same time as biting on an object, such as a paddock fence or stall door. This condition is a habitual one that should be addressed.
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Symptoms of Cribbing in Horses
Some things that you’ll likely notice at home with your horse:
- A repeated practice by your horse that includes setting his teeth on a solid object, perhaps a stall door, feeding bucket, or fence rail
- The arching of the neck to allow for the inhalation or sucking of air
- Characteristic grunts or belching heard as a result of this gulping of air
- The horse’s neck muscles may appear enlarged if this habit is long-standing
- You may actually notice the horse swallowing or gulping the air as he practices this habit
While there aren’t specific types of cribbing, there are some similarities that it shares with other terms used to designate the condition. For example, the term wind sucking is also used to describe this habit, and while it involves the intake or gulping of air that goes along with cribbing, it doesn’t necessarily involve affixing the teeth to a solid object. The habit of cribbing involves the horse using his teeth to grab onto a solid object, arching the neck and gulping air into his esophagus - an action that produces the characteristic grunt or belch sound that is heard. The wood or surface of the object may be eroded as a result of repeated episodes, but the wood is not chewed as such.
Causes of Cribbing in Horses
The causes of cribbing in horses have not actually been established but most veterinary professionals believe that the habit stems from the adaptation of the horse from the natural free-ranging environment for which the horse was designed by to the more restrained and restricted environment into which we place them when in captivity and domestication. Some veterinary professionals feel that the habit of cribbing starts as a result of frustration or boredom of the horse in his environment much like some of the habits we humans develop in similar circumstances, overeating or taking drugs to try to satiate a physical or psychological need. Other causes which have been suggested include:
- Improper diet and feeding
- Lack of socialization with other horses
- Lack of exercise
- Too much confinement
- Gastrointestinal issues and intermittent colic
Diagnosis of Cribbing in Horses
Your veterinarian will perform a physical examination on your horse and what he is looking for is the tell-tale wear on the upper incisor teeth, enlargement of the ventral neck muscles, weight loss, decreased pH in the horse’s feces, decreased appetite and increased water intake. He will need a good history from you, the owner, as to gastrointestinal issues which include gastric ulcers and intermittent colic. He will likely question you about any increased restlessness you may have noted when the horse is stabled.
If gastrointestinal issues are suspected, your veterinarian may need to do a examination through endoscopy in which he can use an endoscope through the throat to actually look at the stomach areas of your horse to ascertain if there are ulcerations which may need to be treated. Many horses have ulcers due to the stressors involved with the competitiveness of racing and horse shows as well as confinement. It is felt that some of these gastric issues could also be causes of cribbing in your horse.
Treatment of Cribbing in Horses
If the cribbing has no gastric component, there is really no real treatment to cure it. Cribbing in horses is generally thought to be a habit that is born of a number of factors, most of which aren’t really systemic abnormalities but are, instead, primarily considered to be the result of psychological issues. Changes in the type of diet and feeding schedule may be considered options, more frequent exercise and less confinement to the stable are also steps which might be suggested by your veterinarian.
Since cribbing is considered a behavior rather than a disease, it will likely be a challenge to stop or prevent. Total prevention is likely not a result that you should expect. There are cribbing halters and straps that can be utilized which will make it uncomfortable for your horse to engage in the repeated motions necessary for cribbing. Giving your horse the opportunity to lick or chew on a salt block throughout the day and night is another possible option for treatment. Pay attention to your horse’s environment as it relates to any potential stress factors and try to minimize if not eliminate them.
Recovery of Cribbing in Horses
Recovery from the habit of cribbing is not likely to happen totally and permanently. Getting rid of some of the stressors which may have lead to the development of the habit will help but it is not likely that it will be cured since it is believed to be more of a psychological issue than a systemic disease process. If you have several horses who engage in this practice and if you feel they may be teaching each other, it would be wise to separate them if at all possible.
Surgical option includes cutting of the neck muscles and some of the nerves and should be only considered as a last ditch one as the success rate is small, making it more sensible to try the other less invasive options first. Since the possibility of permanently eliminating the cribbing habit is rare, the best course of action is to be constantly aware of the symptoms and get medical care at the earliest possible time when they are noted.