Refeeding Malnourished Horses

Few sights are more tragic than malnourished or starved horses. Outright neglect does occur, but not all underweight horses are victims of abuse. Horses might be recovering from serious conditions that have led to weight loss, and their owners are doing all they can to help the horse regain its previous condition. Others are being fed regularly, but the feed might not be of the ideal
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Few sights are more tragic than malnourished or starved horses. Outright neglect does occur, but not all underweight horses are victims of abuse. Horses might be recovering from serious conditions that have led to weight loss, and their owners are doing all they can to help the horse regain its previous condition. Others are being fed regularly, but the feed might not be of the ideal nutritional quality. Understanding the effects of starvation, the likelihood for recovery, and basic principles of refeeding will help horse owners should they encounter a horse that requires a nutritional overhaul.

Effects of Starvation

Starvation causes muscle wastage, weakness, and hypothermia. It also decreases the horse's gastrointestinal function, wound healing abilities, cold tolerance, and immunity. Pregnant mares, nursing foals, or heavily parasitized horses will be compromised further. When feed intake is decreased, the horse first relies on its body stores of energy in the form of glycogen and fat. Glycogen is a large, highly branched sugar (glucose) that is primarily stored in the liver and muscle. Glycogen stores are depleted fairly quickly when feed is restricted, usually within 24-36 hours, and the horse will then begin to use its fat stores. The horse will eventually run out of stored energy sources and will begin to break down its own proteins (such as muscle) to produce glucose. It takes about 60-90 days of feed deprivation for a normal, healthy horse in moderate body condition to drop enough weight to lose its ability to remain standing.

Starved horses have decreased gut bacteria and protozoa populations that are essential to ferment forages and other feeds. Additionally, the gut cells that produce digestive enzymes have decreased ability to digest and absorb feed. For these reasons, digestibility of feed is reduced. Refeeding must occur gradually to allow the gut flora to readapt to feed and recover their normal functions

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