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How to Refeed Your Malnourished Horse
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How to Refeed Your Malnourished Horse

According to Rebecca Remillard, a qualified vet, the number of horses reaching the humane shelters in poor body condition (which means a score of one to three on the BCS nine-point scale) as a result of starvation has increased since 2007.

During the American Association of Equine Practitioners Convention (2016) held in Orlando, Florida from December 3rd to 7th, Remillard, who also works for Veterinary Nutritional Consultations Incorporated, based in Hollister, North Carolina, outlined ways of refeeding starving, malnourished horses.

How does malnutrition occur?

Remillard opined that the most frequent reasons for malnutrition are owner negligence, lack of knowledge or limited finances and not criminal mistreatment. In extreme cases, a mature horse can lose about two-fifths (40%) of its body weight as a result of totally lacking feed for a period between sixty and ninety days. At this juncture, a horse cannot hold up its own body weight and it becomes recumbent, meaning it is not able to rise and it has poor prospects of survival. The majority of horses with a poor body condition score (or BCS) are given insufficient, low-quality diet for over three or four months prior to becoming recumbent.

Treating a malnourished horse

When dealing with a horse that is malnourished, begin by getting a vet to perform a physical examination. The vet will measure BCS, blood parameters, body weight and also evaluate the horse’s appetite.

When dealing with a horse that is malnourished, begin by getting a vet to perform a physical examination. The vet will measure BCS, blood parameters, body weight and also evaluate the horse’s appetite.

A disease can significantly affect the gastrointestinal system of the horse. If there is no food, this leads to physical changes in the intestines (both small and large) and this can weaken the ability of the horse to digest nutrients. The microbiome in the hindgut is especially diet-sensitive, yet we have limited understanding of how it works. Remillard proposed that malnourished horses be housed with other healthy horses in an environment that has manure and dirt. The theory behind this is that it may assist in re-establishing the microbiome in a natural way, akin to the way a foal builds a microbiome.

Important refeeding tips

As you start refeeding a starving horse, his digestible energy (or DE) intake should be based on his current weight, rather than optimal weight. In order to estimate DE, use the following equation: 

Digestible energy (megacalorie per day) = horse body weight (in kilograms) x 0.03 Note: 1 megacalorie (Mcal) = 1000kcal

Take a number of days to build up to feeding the amount you calculate. Remillard advocates using the forage first method. This is because forage is useful in regenerating the horse gastrointestinal system functionally, physically and nutritionally. Fight the urge to give extra feed or give the horse a simple-sugar or high-starch diet. This is because it might result in laminitis or digestive disorders or even refeeding syndrome, which is worse. The syndrome happens where a starving animal consumes too many nutrients and calories leading to an imbalance in body electrolytes, failure of body organs and possibly death.

Remillard explained the amount of weight that a properly-nourished horse is expected to regain every day, depending on its BCS:

BCS One: Target gaining a maximum of one pound each day;

BCS Two: Target gaining between one to two pounds each day;

BCS Three: Target a weight gain of two pounds each day.

The bottom line 

Remillard stated that horses with insufficient appetite and recumbent horses are likely to have a poor survival prognosis. Yet the likelihood of successful rehabilitation is dependent on each horse and the level of resources an care available. The guidance of a nutritionist and a veterinary is critical in ensuring that the horse regains full health. The process of full rehabilitation can even take weeks. A horse that has a BCS of one may take almost a year to attain his ideal weight. Patience, care and time are essential.

Image credit: tbo.com

Disclaimer: Of Horse! and sponsors do not endorse nor validate the accuracy of a blog post. Each article is the opinion of the blogger.

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  1. nikkimeade17
    I have four horses and they have fat bellies but we can see the outline of the bones in their butt. We give them hay everyday and feed and weight builder that goes into the feed, and they have lots of grass. I'm running out of ideas and needing some help.
  2. LMsMom
    We just got our first horse 6 months ago. He is 22 years old & a huge sweetie!! Please help me with helping him maintain his weight during the winter months?? I was told he is a bit underweight. He is on Elite LowCarb twice a day & alfalfa hay. Thank you.

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