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What is Depraved Appetite?

Ingesting non-food items may cause serious and possibly fatal complications to the horse.  Non-food items can result in choking, inflammation or obstruction of the gastrointestinal tract.  A  horse consuming non-food items may also develop enterolith or intestinal rocks. Enteroliths are an accumulation of magnesium, ammonium, and phosphate crystals that form around the ingested foreign object. Enteroliths can get large and grow into multiple intestinal masses. The horse will then experience colic, bloating and intestinal impaction. 

It is common for foals to consume their dam’s fresh feces. This is considered a normal occurrence that some believe benefits the foal’s digestive system. It is speculated that it helps the foal with the transition from his dam’s milk to his solid food diet. Consuming feces after the age of six months, is not normal behavior.

Depraved appetite in horses, refers to a horse licking, gnawing or ingesting non-food items such as wood, feces, soil, sand, rocks, bones, and hair.  Depraved appetite in horses is also called pica.

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Symptoms of Depraved Appetite in Horses

Depraved appetite may include one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Licking, gnawing or consuming wood or rocks
  • Eating soil or sand
  • Consuming feces
  • Chewing on hair
  • Colic
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Behavioral issues

Causes of Depraved Appetite in Horses

  • Mineral deficiency phosphorus, salt, iron, copper
  • Vitamins imbalances
  • Dietary deficiencies
  • Behavioral issues (boredom, curiosity)
  • Parasites

Diagnosis of Depraved Appetite in Horses

The equine veterinarian will go over your horse’s medical history.  He will ask you what symptoms you have observed in your horse and when they started.  The veterinarian may want to discuss the horse’s present diet and exercise routine. Let your veterinarian know if there has been any behavior problems. He will then perform a physical examination of the horse.  The physical exam may include:

  • Taking the patient’s temperature
  • Checking heart rate
  • Blood pressure
  • Listening to his heart and lungs with a stethoscope
  • Rectal Exam
  • Examining mucous membranes
  • Palpation of the abdominal area and lymph nodes

Diagnostics tests may include a complete blood count (CBC), chemistry serum panel, fecal exam, urinalysis and hair analysis.  If the veterinarian suspects a gastrointestinal tract obstruction, he may recommend stomach x-rays and an ultrasound.

Treatment of Depraved Appetite in Horses

Treatment will depend on the veterinarian diagnoses. If it is discovered that the patient has mineral, vitamin, or dietary deficiency, he will need to have dietary supplements, vitamins and a modified nutritional diet.  There are salt block toys that the horse may enjoy and benefit from.  

If the veterinarian believes that your horse is acting out because he is bored, he may suggest increasing his exercise.  The horse needs to spend less time being confined in a stall. Horses are social animals, and need socialization to avoid behavior problems. Using cayenne pepper on the foal’s tail may discourage biting at the hair.

 Horses that are fed a pellet diet are more likely to chew on wood. It is important to provide a variety of fresh, long stem forage, greens, carrots and apples in addition to his regular pellet diet. 

Patients with parasites will need to be dewormed.  Regular deworming is required to avoid a re-infestation. Stalls will also need to be cleaned.  Manure must be removed daily from the stalls and pastures to avoid parasites.

Surgery will be required in horses with enterolith (intestinal stones).  Post-surgery, the patient may be prescribed antibiotics, pain and anti-inflammatory medication.  Natural preventatives to help avoid the reoccurrence of enteroliths, include adding vinegar to the horse’s water to decrease the ph levels in the intestines, and occasionally adding psyllium (high fiber product) in the horse’s diet.

Recovery of Depraved Appetite in Horses

Horses that underwent surgery for intestinal masses will be given postoperative instructions. Follow-up visits will be needed to check on the horse’s condition and to remove sutures.  It usually takes 3 months for a full recovery before the patient can go back to his regular exercise routine. 

Horses that have had parasites will need to have a fecal exam to make sure there are no more parasitic larvae. You can ask the veterinarian how often the horse should be dewormed.

Patients that showed mineral, vitamin or dietary deficiency will need to have bloodwork, hair analysis and urinalysis retaken. 

If the horse continues to eat non-food items, the veterinarian may suggest and recommend an equine behaviorist. An equine behaviorist will make hands-on observations of the horse; and may have recommendations of additional activities that may help your horse with depraved appetite.