What is Flank Biting?
Generally, more stallions exhibit this behavior than mares, fillies or geldings. High strung or sexually frustrated stallions are more at risk of this behavior. Flank biting that causes harm or draws blood should be very concerning and requires immediate intervention.
Flank biting is considered to be part of ESMS or equine self mutilation syndrome. Your horse’s behavior is considered to be self-directed aggression when they exhibit chronic flank biting. Flank biting in horses is equivalent to Tourette’s syndrome in humans. The behavior is repetitive and the horse’s mannerisms become more and more aggressive when something triggers this reaction.
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Symptoms of Flank Biting in Horses
Flank biting is a serious condition that needs to be addressed quickly to hopefully diminish the desire to self mutilate. Have your veterinarian perform a thorough examination to ensure that there is no other condition causing your horse to self mutilate.
- Kicking out the hindquarters
- Nervous stomping of the feet
- Throwing the head or neck
- Loud vocalizations
- Fixations with any fencing boundaries
- Nipping or biting at the flanks
- Erratic behavior
Behaviorists may classify flank biting in three ways, as observed in equine studies:
- Self Directed - Often develops over a period of time, at any life stage (most often in geldings and stallions)
- Extreme - There may be a physical component (for example in reaction to pain) and can include self-biting and spinning
- Rhythmic - Has a repetitive character to the action (similar to stall weaving)
Causes of Flank Biting in Horses
The causes of flank biting can be environmental, psychological, or from an underlying condition causing pain or discomfort. Many times the symptoms of colic will mimic those of flank biting, making it difficult for veterinarians to properly diagnose.
Your horse could be experiencing pain from gastric or colonic ulcers. A stallion could also experience pain from a twisted testicular cord or a urethral tear. Horses may also exhibit flank biting from fear or a remembered past experience that is causing anxiousness.
Diagnosis of Flank Biting in Horses
To diagnose flank biting, your veterinarian will do a thorough physical examination, and evaluate your horse’s medical history, as well as observe the clinical signs. Additional testing to rule out other conditions may be required before a definitive diagnosis can be made.
If pain is suspected, the veterinarian may need to do x-rays or an ultrasound, or other diagnostic imaging tests. Blood work and urinalysis could indicate an underlying health condition as well.
Once the diagnosis has been made and no underlying causes have been found, determining what is causing the behavior becomes a priority. Your veterinarian may refer you to an expert in behavior modification in horses.
Treatment of Flank Biting in Horses
There is no set treatment plan for flank biting or for the more generalized equine self- mutilation syndrome. Therefore, your veterinarian will offer a treatment plan that is tailored to your horse.
If an underlying cause has been identified, your veterinarian will set a specific treatment plan for that illness or condition. Once the underlying cause has been dealt with, the flank biting should decrease or completely stop.
Stallions exhibiting flank biting may be doing so due to hormonal imbalances or high sexual frustration. By gelding a stallion their hormones will come back to a normal level and any sexual frustration will disappear once their hormone levels drop to normal.
Medications such as antidepressants or tranquilizers may help calm your horse and keep them from self mutilating. While medications may give your horse some relief, a long-term cure is not available, except for behavior modification.
Your veterinarian may refer you to a behavioral specialist. This specialist will help you determine what is emotional or environmental causes are triggering the self mutilating behavior. Changes within the stable may need to be made. Increasing your horse’s social interaction may also help alleviate the flank biting.
In extreme cases where your horse does not respond to any treatments or behavior modifications euthanasia may be recommended.
Recovery of Flank Biting in Horses
Once your veterinarian has fully assessed your horse and the degree of flank biting that is occurring, you will know better the possible outcome for your horse. In most cases, environmental changes will help along with redirecting your horse using social interactions and exercise.
Sometimes, with flank biting, it is a question of trying different treatments to minimize or even completely stop the behavior so your horse can live a normal, healthy life.
Flank Biting Questions and Advice from Veterinary Professionals
We bought a two year old colt, we had him gelded before we brought him home because we had two mares. Later on We noticed he bit at his legs flung his head back and bit at his side. Spin in circles kicked out. Any idea what may be going on? When he is out of most of his hay he tends to start this. Than stops goes back to eating.
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can i put my horse back on trails she been off due to kicking injury from other horse she was kick in the girth area is off of bute for 4 days no limping just some small lumps
In all likelihood Aba would be good to go, but without an examination and palpation of the area etc… I wouldn’t want to say yes. Regards Dr Callum Turner DVM
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