What are Weight Loss?
There are a number of factors that can trigger weight loss in equines, some of them simple and others more complex. Severe or chronic weight loss should be evaluated by a veterinary professional as it is important to uncover the reason for the loss of weight quickly. If improperly treated either the underlying condition or the loss of mass may lead to dire circumstances. Weight loss can be more common when the seasons change, when the diet is altered, and as horses age.
Weight loss in horses can be caused by a number of different circumstances. An underweight horse requires medical attention to prevent permanent damage.
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Symptoms of Weight Loss in Horses
Symptoms that your horse may be dangerously underweight or may be experiencing malnutrition can include:
- Accentuated shoulders and withers
- Cracked or crumbling hooves
- Discolored or brittle mane and tale
- Dull coat
- Exercise intolerance
- No fatty tissue
- Prominent bone structure
- Ridge along backbone
- Sensitivity to touch
- Unusual aggression
- Visible ribs
Not all horse owners are able to find either the money or place for a scale large enough to weigh a horse, however, there is another way to get a good approximation of your horse’s weight.
You can use a weight tape, a measuring strip made of strong, flexible cloth and marked in pounds instead of inches. With your horse standing on level ground, drape the weight tape over the horse’s back, right behind the withers. Reach under the belly and pull the tape taut just a few inches behind the front legs and raise the end to meet the tape on the barrel so that it is around the girth. Write the measurement down. It is normal for the weight tape to be at an angle when the animal’s weight is measured.
If you do not have access to a weight tape you can take this measurement in inches using regular seamstress type tape, then measure the length of the horse. Then use the following formula for an adult horse.
(girth x girth x body length) /330
Causes of Weight Loss in Horses
Chronic illnesses like chrone’s disease, cancer, and diabetes often lead to weight loss. Although less common, the pain from disorders like arthritis and laminitis can also instigate weight loss.
Problems that originate with the teeth of an equine can make it difficult to eat adequate quantities of food as well as reducing the nutritional value of the food that is eaten due to insufficient chewing and grinding.
Inadequate nutrition can occur in a few ways. In some cases, the animal simply isn’t consuming enough food; this is common when a horse increases their training regimen, but not their caloric intake. Inadequate nutrition can also occur due to poor quality feed or deficient absorption through the intestines.
This can be caused by internal parasites, such as worms, or external parasites, like fleas and mites.
Diagnosis of Weight Loss in Horses
An appointment to evaluate weight loss will start with a history of the patient. This generally includes making inquiries in regards to the patient’s medical history, age, and regular activities. It will also cover information concerning changes in eating habits, regular activities, or herd dynamics. Standard tests such as a biochemical profile, complete blood count, and urinalysis will help the equine veterinarian to determine if there are any illnesses or imbalances present in the system. Another test that is common in cases of unexplained weight loss is the fecal float test; this test is employed to check for parasites in the digestive system that may be contributing to the problem.
As well, the teeth will most likely get a preliminary exam. In some cases, your veterinarian may recommend that an equine dentist completes a more thorough dental exam. Advanced imaging techniques may also be warranted, depending on the outcome of the previous tests. X-ray imaging may be used to check for issues like osteoarthritis and ultrasound technology will help the examiner to see if there are any blockages, foreign materials, or abnormalities to be found along the digestive system that may be causing difficulties. Your veterinarian can also give you recommendations on where to send samples of your horse’s feed and pasture to analyze the nutrients that are included in the animal’s daily diet.
Treatment of Weight Loss in Horses
The treatment for a horse that is losing weight is dependent on the cause of the weight loss. In many cases, there is an underlying illness or disorder that must be resolved before the horse’s weight can be brought back to a healthy status. This could include prescriptions for anti-inflammatory medications for swelling and pain, antibiotics or fungicides for infections, or deworming medication for parasitic infestations. It is critical that these medications are given to your horse at the proper times and in the proper amounts according to your veterinarian's instructions, often even after the initial symptoms have cleared. This is to ensure that the problem is eradicated and is not given an opportunity to reoccur.
Dental problems will be addressed by either an equine dentist or by the veterinarian themselves Changes are often required to the feed that the horse is offered, but those changes may vary depending on the situation. Some of the dietary remedies that may be recommended can include:
- Add probiotics to the diet.
- Add higher calorie feed to the diet like alfalfa hay, conditioning chaff, and rice bran.
- Adding vegetable oil to the diet.
- Choosing a specially formulated feed for young horses, senior horses, or for mares that are pregnant or nursing.
- Ensure the horse is getting its fair share of the communal feed.
Be sure to follow your veterinarian’s advice on dietary changes as a change that is too drastic or sudden may compound the problem rather than fixing it.
Recovery of Weight Loss in Horses
It is important to measure your horse’s weight on a regular basis to ensure proper nutrition. Not only is being underweight unhealthy for equines but being overweight can be detrimental as well. Obesity in horses can lead to lowered exercise tolerance, increased stress on the bones and joints, and is linked to increased risk of heart disease and some types of cancer. Diabetes, founder, and colic are also more common in obese horses. Obesity can be particularly problematic for breeding animals. Overweight stallions tend to have sperm with less motility and more malformations, whereas mares experience reduced milk production, leading to underweight and sometimes sickly foals.