What is Vitamin E Deficiency?
Many factors contribute to a horse’s health. One such factor is a proper balance of vitamin and minerals, which is not always supplied by commercial feed or hay. Vitamin deficiency refers to the lack of, or the inability to use, sufficient enough vitamins to meet the needs associated with growth and healthy function. Since such deficiencies often have serious health-consequences in horses, and some of them irreversible, more and more horse owners are seeking nutritional education and the services of a veterinary nutritionist. While a short-term deficiency in a vitamin, such as vitamin E, may be resolvable through the use of supplements, a chronic deficiency (one year or more) may cause long-term damage to critical systems such as circulatory, nervous, reproductive, respiratory and muscular, among others. Chronic deficiency may be irreversible, and may prove fatal in some cases.
In a horse, vitamin E contributes not only to a healthy immune system and the absorption and storage of vitamin A, but also supports nerve health and proper nerve function. The prolonged deficiency of vitamin E may contribute to serious neurological disorders such as equine motor neuron disease (EMND), a degenerative disease of the nerve cells in the spine and brain stem. When these nerves are healthy, they prompt the horse’s muscles to properly contract and move. However, in a horse with EMND, these nerves are damaged and unable to send proper messages to the muscles. The horse may lose significant weight while maintaining a normal appetite, and muscles may fully or partially atrophy, causing the horse to tremble, sweat, shift weight between hind legs, and resist standing. The other disease related to vitamin E deficiency is equine degenerative myeloencephalopathy (EDM). Horses with EDM experience spinal cord and brainstem deterioration.
Horses at greater risk for vitamin E deficiency-related disease are predominantly stabled (little to no grazing) and on hay-only diets (or eating stale hay); these diseases present far less frequently in horses with green-pasture turnouts (access to fresh green feed, which is the primary source of vitamin E). Vitamin E deficiency, and related disease, does not appear to favor any breeds over others, though performance horses, pregnant and lactating mares, and young horses (two years and under) appear to be at extra risk.
If your horse is displaying any symptoms associated with vitamin E deficiency, contact a veterinarian immediately. Horse owners are also cautioned against independently developing an arbitrary mix of supplements. Vitamin toxicity, or an improper balance of vitamins, may prove to be just as harmful as deficiency.
A prolonged deficiency of vitamin E may contribute to neurological disorders such as equine motor neuron disease (EMND), a degenerative disease of the nerve cells in the spine and brain stem.
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Symptoms of Vitamin E Deficiency in Horses
- Sudden onset of trembling
- Shifting from one hind leg to another
- Difficulty standing
- Excessive lying down
- Spontaneous muscle contractions
- Stiff, uncoordinated gait
- Low head carriage
- Muscle atrophy
- Weight loss
- Low energy
Causes of Vitamin E Deficiency in Horses
- Hay-only diet
- Lack of fresh hay
- Lack of green feed (source of vitamin E)
Diagnosis of Vitamin E Deficiency in Horses
The veterinarian will look for clinical signs of nutritional deficiency. Blood testing (serum and plasma) is the only way to know if your horse is deficient in vitamin E. Forage and hay may be tested to determine nutritional components. Testing for a vitamin E deficiency-related disease such as EMND is more invasive, and requires a muscle biopsy.
Treatment of Vitamin E Deficiency in Horses
Treatment for vitamin E deficiency in a horse may include oral supplementation. Your veterinarian will guide you to the proper amount for the age and weight of the horse. Deficiencies are often correctable, yet severe, chronic cases may have lesser outcomes. Your horse should show improvement with the proper balance of vitamins, though presence of any related-disease will affect treatment and outcome. Your veterinarian may refer you to an equine nutritionist for advice.
Recovery of Vitamin E Deficiency in Horses
Horse owners should continue proper supplementation as recommended by the veterinarian. Having the horse’s feed tested is an excellent way to ensure proper nutrition.
A horse that has been diagnosed with a vitamin E deficiency should have plasma vitamin E levels tested per veterinary advice. Do not attempt to administer supplementation without the advice of the nutritionist or veterinarian; the professional will be well equipped to monitor the benefits of the supplements while ensuring that over administration does not occur.