Nutritional Support for Horses With Cellulitis

Horses with cellulitis need medical intervention from a veterinarian, but these efforts can be supported through a balanced diet. Here’s why.

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NSAID, powdered medication with scoop.
Horses being treated for cellulitis with NSAIDs and antibiotics might benefit from digestive support. | The Horse Staff

Q. My horse gets frequent bouts of cellulitis. I work closely with my vet to treat and prevent this medically, but is there anything I can do to support our efforts through his diet?

A. Cellulitis is a bacterial infection that involves both the connective tissue and the fat tissue, most frequently presenting in the lower limb of the horse, and can be a challenging health issue. There are multiple causes of the condition; however, the infection normally enters the body through small (often undetectable) microtraumas on the skin surface.

Medical management is critical to resolving these cases, so it is great that you are working closely with your veterinarian. For treatment, the goal is to reduce the inflammation, eliminate the infection, and reduce the likelihood of the infection recurring.

A Balanced Diet for Horses With Cellulitis

Although nutritional management is not a cure for cellulitis, there are some dietary changes you can make to support your medical efforts. A balanced diet is imperative to maintaining both skin health and the immune system. Providing your horse with a feed or ration balancer (fed at the manufacturer’s recommended amount) is an important factor. Inadequate protein (amino acids), vitamin deficiencies, and unbalanced minerals can all negatively impact the health of a horse’s skin and hair coat, so pursuing a balanced diet for your horse with appropriate levels of vitamins, minerals, protein, and energy is important to promote optimal health.

Vitamin E & Omega-3s to Reduce Inflammation in Horses

When inflammatory issues are present, adding vitamin E and a source of omega-3 fatty acids is also a common recommendation. For your horse, if he is on a balanced diet, I recommend having his vitamin E levels tested via blood serum. If the levels are adequate, then there is no need for additional supplementation but, if he has a deficiency, supplementing with a natural source of vitamin E can help support your efforts to prevent cellulitis. 

When adding omega-3s, opt for a fat source that is greater in omega-3 content than omega-6 content (while one omega-6 type has been studied for its beneficial effects, omega-6s are generally considered to have pro- rather than anti-inflammatory properties; the ratio of the two seems to be what’s important). Oils such as flax or camelina are good options and can be fed at a rate of 1-2 oz per day to start and increased to 2-4 oz per day if your horse needs additional fat. Adding fat to the diet can help your horse maintain the protective barrier of sebum on his coat. This is especially important if your horse has dry skin and is prone to cellulitis. If your horse is not overweight, adding an omega-3-rich fat source to his daily ration can be a good way to support the prevention of cellulitis.

Digestive Support for Cellulitis

Because the cellulitis episodes are frequent, you could try a digestive support supplement for your horse. Regular administration of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and/or antibiotics can disrupt his gastrointestinal tract. Of course, a balanced forage-based diet will be a key factor in maintaining your horse’s gut health, but adding a pH control supplement for the gut could provide extra support. When choosing a supplement, evaluate the research on the product to ensure what you are investing in will support for your horse.

Take-Home Message

When cellulitis bouts occur, seeking medical management and guidance on optimal treatment from your veterinarian should be the first step. However, there are some nutritional considerations that can support your horse in addition to the medical efforts. A balanced diet that provides your horse adequate nutrients is imperative to his overall health. Adding a fat source that is rich in omega-3s and investigating digestive support supplements to use when your horse is on NSAIDs or antibiotics could reduce the negative effects these medications might have on his digestive system.

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Written by:

Madeline Boast completed her master’s in Equine Nutrition at the University of Guelph and started an independent nutrition company known as Balanced Bay. She has worked with a variety of equids—from Miniature Ponies to competing Thoroughbreds. Boast designs customized balanced nutrition plans that prioritize equine well-being, both for optimal performance and solving complex nutritional issues and everything between. 

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