Refeeding starved horses

Refeeding starved horses

Recovery from malnutrition, starvation takes time, patience
Jun 01, 2009

Before and after: These photos show a malnourished horse (above) with a rescue worker at a state impound facility and the same horse (below) restored to health after a proper re-feeding program. It is important that veterinarians and care-givers responsible for rehabilitating starved horses resist the urge to give them a diet rich in grain. Alfalfa hay fed in small amounts over a number of days and a slow approach to weight gain will result in a much more desirable outcome.
A combination of last year's higher gas prices, drought and resulting poor hay crop, plus this year's economic downturn and the effects of anti-slaughter legislation have caused a spike in the number of starved and rescued horses being seen by veterinarians.

"Generally we would see a few cases monthly, but now we are getting that number of actual cases and consultation calls weekly," says Dr. Carolyn Stull, animal welfare extension specialist at the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine,

The most common reasons for severely malnourished horses, Stull adds, is "owner ignorance followed by economic hardship."

Reinforcing her observation, a report from the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine says, "Most cases of starvation or severe malnutrition originate from owners who acquire more horses than they have interest in caring for or the means to care for."

Veterinarians often are called in to help private individuals or state and local animal rescue organizations with the rehabilitation of chronically starved horses. Such cases usually are far more involved than they appear initially.

"Re-feeding starved animals, including humans, is not an easy process," Stull says. Many nutritional and biochemical processes are altered when horses go without adequate food for long periods. Re-feeding these individuals without a proper knowledge of the problems they are likely to encounter and without an appropriate feeding program and schedule likely will result in the death of a significant number of horses, Stull warns.

Assessing the overall horse

The first step in dealing with a starved horse and planning its rehabilitation is to obtain an overall assessment. The horse's general appearance and its body score [1 (emaciated) to 9 (obese), based on the Body Condition Assessment or Scoring System (Henneke, 1983)] should be noted.

It is important that the horse be handled and that body score be based on actual palpation rather than on visual examination. Long hair coats in the winter or early spring (the peak seasons for starvation cases) can make it difficult to judge body condition accurately.

Scores of 4 to 6 are considered optimal for healthy horses, while scores below 3.5 are typical for emaciation/starvation cases. These horses have a prominent backbone and only a slight flesh covering over the ribs. The tail head is evident on these horses, and neck, withers and shoulders are emphasized. The head of a starved horse appears disproportionately large, and it may have poor to little hair coat, a depressed attitude with low-hanging head, motionless tail and ears, dull eyes, lethargy, nervousness and a lack of interaction with herdmates.

Because so many factors may contribute to starvation or affect its reversal, a complete step-by-step approach to these animals is needed.

A good physical examination should be done to investigate any possible arthritic reasons (cannot get to food or maintain herd position adequately to get enough nutrition), dental reasons (poor dentition so that it cannot process food), metabolic reasons (Cushing's disease, parasitic overload), cardiac, respiratory, immunologic or other reasons for starvation.

If any underlying problems are found, they should be addressed while the re-feeding process is being started because horses may not respond well to rehabilitation if potentially serious diseases or conditions are not treated.