What is Geophagia?
Eating dirt is seen both in equine herds out in the wild, and in domesticated horses. Often, this condition is seen in horses who are seeking something in the soil that is missing in their daily diet. While an unusual habit, many horse owners may feel there is not much that can be done to stop their horse from ingesting dirt. Geophagia may not seem harmful but the danger of an obstruction caused by stones or ingesting dirt in an area that has a lot of sand can present a hazard. Too much intake of sand can cause sand colic.
Boredom, nutritional deficiency, and lack of foraging opportunity may all contribute to the behavior. A consultation with your veterinarian can give you insight and advice as to how to deal with geophagia in your horse.
Geophagia is a behavior that your horse shares with many other animal species. In short, it is the craving or eating of dirt.
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Symptoms of Geophagia in Horses
Although mostly harmless in small doses, it your horse starts ingesting large amounts in a continuous manner, you need to get your veterinarian out to examine him
If it is sudden and your horse is eating large amounts, the behavior may point to a medical condition that needs investigating. Your horse may just brush the ground with their mouth or lick at the dirt and sometimes your horse may ingest chunks of dirt.
- Eating soil
- Ingesting rocks
Your horse may develop some strange habits, dirt eating among them. This behavior is not uncommon even though it may seem strange.
- Similar habits are seen in the condition coprophagia whereby horses eat manure
- Some horses develop the habit of nibbling on wood and may be seen chomping away on their stall door (lignophagia)
- Licking of metal or iron is another similar habit
Causes of Geophagia in Horses
- Changes from hay to pelleted hay feed
- Pelleted hay is quicker to eat and leaves a lot of free time for your horse to become curious and try new things
- If your horse suffers from ulcers he may eat the dirt to soothe the stomach; this is widely believed but has no scientific proof
- Wild horses that eat dirt may be seeking copper and iron to fulfil their nutritional needs
- Mineral and vitamin deficiencies such as a phosphorous deficiency may be a cause
- Boredom (your horse may just be trying to fill in his day)
Diagnosis of Geophagia in Horses
Strange new habits that your horse develops are always worth observing. If it is an occasionally nibble at the dirt or the occasional mouthful that is fine. But when it becomes a persistent habit there may be an underlying medical condition causing it and it would be prudent to have your veterinarian do a health check on your horse. The cause may be from the lack of dietary bulk fibre which helps keep your horse’s stomach full. Potassium deficit animals may lick at wood and concrete. Sodium is often deficient in horses that exercise strenuously, which may lead to the dirt consumption, done to balance out their needs.
By their very nature, horses are used to grazing all day, and if they are confined to a stall with set feeding procedures they may find it hard to adjust and be short on nutrients, and feel hungry so hence their unusual eating habits. Boredom is a big problem for the horse who is confined and fed concentrated feeds that are easy to eat but don’t provide that satisfaction that constant grazing or rough feed does.
Your veterinarian may choose to do diagnostic tests such as blood work in order to rule out parasitic infestation or mycotoxins that may have been consumed along with the soil. Additionally, nutritional deficiencies that can cause a horse to crave soil will be revealed. If all health concerns are ruled out, your veterinarian may suggest changes to your equine’s environment as a test to see if the habit ceases.
Treatment of Geophagia in Horses
Diet analysis is vital if you see your horse dining on dirt. Checking the feed and providing variety is important to prevent deficiencies. Consistent feed times if stalled and regular turnout is advised. Adding fresh feed to the diet such as grass, greens, and carrots should be included. When feeding concentrates, supplement with hay to fulfil your horses grazing habits. Regular deworming will help to keep your horse in good condition. If your horse is confined for long amounts of time, including regular exercise is a must, as your horse needs the stimulation of the company and the exercise to keep him happy.
Your veterinarian will be able to suggest appropriate treatment or supplements if necessary. Access to extensive pastures can help control this dirt eating habit in previously stabled horses but the habit may continue if your horse has been doing it for a long time. Usually, the best way to break negative behavior in your horse is to catch it in the early stages of the developing habit and try and solve it quickly.
Recovery of Geophagia in Horses
Management of the diet, and providing a variety of stabling combined with pasture grazing will enable your horse to get past his strange new habit of dirt eating. Often the extra fibre provided at feeding times will be enough to keep his appetite in control and provide stimulation of interest during the day. Combining regular deworming and making sure there are salt and mineral supplements available will help provide a satisfying diet that provides everything your horse needs.
If your horse is stabled, make sure he has something to do early mornings and evenings, such as having hay to nibble on which will distract him from eating things that he shouldn’t. Usually geophagia doesn’t injure your horse, unless there is a lot of sand mixed in. Observation is the key point in caring for your horse, and catching problems at the start will help maintain a healthy happy horse.