Feeding Sick Horses
by Dr Nerida Richards
Sick or injured horses, including horses suffering from burns and other trauma have different requirements to normal healthy horses, both in the types of nutrients they need and the sorts of feeds they can be fed. To determine the best thing to feed sick or injured horses the following guidelines should be followed:
- Don’t make any drastic changes to the diet
Sudden changes to any horse’s diet should be avoided and this is never more the case when you have a sick or injured horse on hand. If your horse was on a primarily forage diet (mainly pasture, hay or chaff) prior to the sickness or injury, you should attempt to maintain the horse on a largely forage diet. Likewise if your horse was being hard fed, you can continue to hard feed the horse, but don’t suddenly introduce hard feeds to a horse that wasn’t on them previously, and unless there is a good medical reason (for example in the case of laminitis) you should not just suddenly stop feeding hard feeds or quickly switch to a new feed.
Keeping their feed consistent will keep them happier (they are creatures of habit and don’t like sudden changes) and also make sure you avoid problems like colic that can be associated with sudden changes in feed.
It is quite likely that you are going to need to make some changes to a horse’s diet. If this is the case, do it as slowly as possible or practical.
Tip: If your horse has to go to a veterinary hospital take along your horses feed he or she is used to and leave clear directions on what and how much your horse is normally fed. If your horse was not hard fed before going to the clinic leave a note with the staff and if you have to, stick a note on your horses stable door requesting your horse is not fed any hard feed, as most horses in vet clinics will get some sort of hard feed unless otherwise directed.
- Introduce new feeds as gradually as possible
There are going to be cases when your horse:
- No longer has access to the feed he or she was used to (as in the case of fires burning out pastures);
- Needs new feeds or supplements to make sure requirements for the healing process are met; or
- Cannot physically eat their normal diet due to injuries to the muzzle or mouth.
When a horse no longer has access to their normal feed, you should find something as similar as possible to replace it with. For example, if a horses normal grass pasture was burnt out by fire, you should initially put the horse on a diet of free choice grass hay. Don’t change them to something like lucerne hay or a hard feed based diet straight away as it is just too different from what they were used to and may cause problems like diarrhoea and colic.
When additional feeds or supplements need to be added you should do so as slowly as possible.
If the horse can’t eat its normal diet due to an injured mouth or muzzle, you should find ‘easy to eat’ versions of feeds similar to the feeds your horse was used to. So for example, if your horse was on grass pasture or grass hay, use oaten or wheaten chaff as an easy to eat alternative. If your horse was eating lucerne hay, use lucerne chaff. And if your horse is finding its hard feed difficult to chew and swallow, soak it in warm water to make it soft before feeding.
- Feed enough feed, but not too much
A sick or injured horse needs to have its calorie intake carefully managed. There are two main situations you need to be aware of:
1. A horse with an injury that is confined to box rest – in these situations you need to ensure the horse does not become overweight through inactivity and overfeeding. Being overweight will put more stress on an injury, particularly if it is some sort of leg or skeletal injury. In addition, overfeeding will make the horse more agitated or hyperactive while confined and may lead to the horse injuring itself again while locked up.
The best diet for these horses is free choice moderate to good quality grass hay, a low dose rate vitamin and mineral supplement, salt lick and water. Providing access to free choice hay will also help relieve boredom.
2. A horse with a sickness or severe injury (including burns) – in these situations the most important considerations are to get the horse to eat (as going off feed can be a major problem) and stop them from losing weight. A sick or severely injured horse that is losing weight will be not be able to start the healing process because its body is in a state of breakdown and not rebuild. If a horse doesn’t eat, it is also likely that its immune system will be compromised, again slowing the healing process and exposing your horse to the risk of secondary disease and infection.
First and foremost with these horses you must get them to eat (see below for tips on getting a horse to eat). Once they are eating, they need to be fed a diet with adequate calories and protein to allow them to maintain their bodyweight or gain bodyweight where required. Feeds such as lucerne hay, grass hay and good quality sweetfeeds or pellets/cubes may be needed for the horse to maintain weight. These horses need to be condition scored regularly and their rations adjusted according to whether they are losing, maintaining or gaining weight.
Tips for getting a horse to eat
- Make sure you are managing pain as pain is one of the first things that will put them off their feed. Work with your vet to develop a good pain management strategy.
- Don’t put medications in your horses feed – most medications are not particularly tasty so instead of putting them in the feed wait until after your horse has eaten and give it to them via a paste made with apple sauce.
- If your horse won’t eat its normal feed you can try adding some things including:
- Grated carrot or apple
- Brewers yeast; or
- Lucerne chaff
- Be careful adding salt. If you make a feed too salty your horse won’t eat it, so add it sparingly and try feeds without it at all to see if it helps with their appetite.
- Make sure the feed bin is in a comfortable position for the horse to reach. For example if it has a painful foreleg injury, elevate the feed bin slightly to reduce the amount of pressure a horse has to put on its legs to eat.
- Allow your horse to graze when possible – horses that won’t eat will generally still graze, and periods of time grazing may be enough to stimulate their appetite so they will eat what you are trying to feed them.
- Feed in frequent small meals and remove uneaten feed every 2 hours to keep it fresh and palatable.
If none of these strategies work and your horse will not eat, contact a veterinarian and discuss the options available for tube feeding.
- Make sure the diet contains everything your horse needs
Never is feeding a balanced diet more important than when feeding a horse recovering from sickness or injury. Protein and certain vitamins and minerals are critically important for promoting the healing process as is ensuring the horse is receiving the correct amount of calories.
If your horse is only eating a small amount of feed each day, the diet should be balanced so that its nutrient needs are largely met within that small meal size. This may involve feeding high protein supplements, concentrated vitamin mineral supplements and using high energy oils and grains to help meet calorie requirements.
Special Note for Burns Victims
Severe burns cause:
- Increased fat metabolism
- Protein breakdown in the body; and
- Increased use and excretion of vitamin C and B-vitamins
Thus a severely burnt horse’s requirements for these nutrients as well as fluid and calories can be increased up to 100% above maintenance needs.
The diet for these horses should be:
- High in protein (14 – 16%)
- High in fat (7 – 10%); and
- Fortified with vitamins and minerals including vitamin E, C and the B-group vitamins.
If you are not sure where to start with feeding a sick or injured horse seek professional help. Feeding a horse the wrong thing when sick or failing to recognise that your horse has special requirements can slow the healing process, suppress your horses immune system and expose your horse to secondary disease and infections. It is important to get it right.