Digestive Disorders In Horses: 3 Types And Treatment Options

Woman veterinary checking horse health in stable

Horses are known for their strength and speed, which make them ideal for riding, farm work, and competitive sports. However, while these animals are tall, strong, and fast, they’re still susceptible to many diseases. For instance, sports horses have been observed to be prone to having digestive disorders. This condition is aggravated by strenuous physical activity, which is why horses that perform such functions commonly experience stomach ailments. 

Aside from physical activities, the horse’s digestive health can also be affected by their nutrition, environment cleanliness, temperature, and the quality of their shelter. For example, sudden changes to the food it consumes could trigger diarrhea. Meanwhile, having unsanitary food or water trough can cause salmonellosis. Thus, it’s essential to become aware of digestive disorders common in horses to protect your furry pal from sicknesses.  

If you’d like to know some of the most common digestive disorders in horses and how to treat them, continue reading this article.  

  1. Colic 

Commonly called abdominal pain, horses are prone to experiencing colic with varying levels of severity. Cases of colic in horses can be due to several factors, such as: 

  • Poor motility 
  • Gut infection 
  • Dietary imbalance  
  • Low-quality food 
  • Sudden changes in food supply and intake 
  • Inadequate hydration 
  • Environmental stress  
  • Dental health issues 
  • Parasitic infection 
  • Ingestion of non-food substances such as rocks or sand 
  • Extended use of medications 

Some common signs of colic in horses are bloating, sweating, and unusual display of behavior that signals stress. If your horse is suddenly refusing food, rolling, pawing, or lying on its back with tucked legs, it may signify a digestive disorder. This condition requires immediate veterinary consultation and medical treatment.  

While waiting for your consultation, you can help your horse by observing it and monitoring its vital signs. You may also need to limit or prohibit food intake as it can worsen the animal’s condition. To comfort it, let the horse take a break from taking walks and rest for as long as needed, especially if it’s feeling weak or in pain. Finally, it’s best to avoid giving your furry pal any medication as it might cause an adverse reaction to what the veterinarian will prescribe.  

Mild to moderate cases of colic can be treated with medication. If there’s excessive gas in the abdominal area, the doctor may use a nasogastric tube to help release it and alleviate the animal’s discomfort. However, the horse may end up requiring surgical treatment if the doctor discovers an impaction or intestinal displacement. In extreme cases, you’ll need to take the horse to an equine hospital for surgery, as most complex procedures can’t be safely carried out outside a fully-equipped medical facility.  

side view of farmer holding bucket and feeding horse in stable
  1. Diarrhea 

It’s common for horses to experience mild to moderate diarrhea, which generally goes away on its own after a few days. However, due to dehydration and frequent bowel movement, foals and aging horses can get severely weak and ill. This condition can be fatal for most animals if not promptly addressed.  

Here are some of the most common causes of diarrhea in horses: 

  • Sudden dietary changes 
  • Gut infections, such as salmonellosis 
  • Intestinal parasites 
  • Gastrointestinal malfunction 
  • Stress caused by prolonged transport or exposure to heat 

Some symptoms of diarrhea in horses include appetite and weight loss, loose bowel movement, watery manure, bloating, colic, and increased thirst. The horse may also appear weak, and the appearance of its coat and eyes will also be negatively affected. In extreme cases, however, a horse can suffer from severe gut inflammation, which can be fatal without immediate intervention.  

You can consider adding more probiotics to your furry pal’s diet to prevent diarrhea. You’ll also need to enhance the quality of grass and food and avoid sudden changes in the horse’s nutrition. Moreover, regular cleaning and sanitation can help eliminate salmonella and other infectious organisms in the horse’s shelter and its food and water containers. Finally, you’ll need to minimize or avoid stressful conditions such as extended transport times, heat exposure, or strenuous physical activities.  

Commonly, a veterinarian would prescribe antibiotics and changes in the horse’s nutrition to treat diarrhea. The doctor can also recommend an increased water intake with electrolytes and consumption of activated charcoal. Aside from these, your vet may also give your horse other substances that would help improve the gut’s health, treat infections, or alleviate inflammation.   

  1. Ulcers 

Equine gastric ulcer syndrome is a condition commonly experienced by horses. While a horse of any age or condition can experience ulcers, it’s more widely observed in those that routinely perform vigorous physical activities such as joining competitions or races. Intense physical activities trigger an increased production of gastric acid, creating sores or ulcers around the stomach lining. These ulcers will then cause pain and discomfort to the animal.  

The following are some of the common causes of stomach ulcers in horses: 

  • Irregular and infrequent feeding  
  • High-grain diets 
  • Stress from physical activity and environment 
  • Frequent use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) 

The signs and symptoms of gastric ulcers can be subtle but can be detected by closely observing the animal’s condition and behavior. With ulcers, a horse can display a poor appetite, less energy, dull hair coat and eyes, excessive salivation, and sudden weight loss. Behavior-wise, the animal may show a dramatic decrease in performance and motivation, bruxism, and irritability when getting brushed and saddled. Some may also lay on their backs to minimize the effects of colic or abdominal pain.  

 If your horse displays any of these symptoms, it signifies that the ulcers might be at an advanced stage and that you must seek medical treatment immediately. The United States Food and Drug Administration has approved one medication intended to treat ulcers in horses, omeprazole. This medication should be used with the approval and supervision of your veterinarian, and it’s best to source this treatment from licensed distributors to avoid using low-quality or unregulated formulations.  

Conclusion 

The average lifespan of a horse range from 25 to 30 years, and its health depends upon its nutrition, shelter, environment, daily activity, and the quality of care it receives. Caring for your horse’s digestive health is essential in prolonging its lifespan, as some stomach ailments can become life-threatening without prompt medical intervention. Also, it’s crucial to watch over the food your furry pal consumes and protect it from various stressors and harmful substances.

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