EQUUS

5 things to consider when refeeding a starved horse

Even if you never have to rehabilita­te a starved horse yourself, knowing the challenges and potential pitfalls of the task can give you a new appreciati­on for the complexiti­es of the equine metabolic system.

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Even if you never have to rehabilita­te a starved horse yourself, knowing the challenges and potential pitfalls of the task can give you a new appreciati­on for the complexiti­es of the equine metabolic system.

The sight of a starving horse---all hipbones and withers---usually sparks an immediate and nearly overwhelmi­ng urge: We want to get that horse a bucket of grain. Immediatel­y. But if you have ever rescued and cared for a malnourish­ed horse, you know all too well the perils that come with re-introducin­g food too quickly or without proper preparatio­n. Whether caused by chronic illness, neglect or outright abandonmen­t, starvation affects a horse’s body in complex and sometimes surprising ways. The last thing an emaciated horse needs is a big helping of calorie-dense sweet feed, all at once. Instead, the process of safely restoring his diet will be gradual and precisely structured to avoid potentiall­y fatal consequenc­es.

Of course, it’s possible to spend a lifetime working with horses and never encounter one who has been starved. But in case you ever do, it’s good to know how to avoid making a dire situation worse. Plus, even if you never need to rehab a starved horse

yourself, understand­ing the process can enhance your understand­ing of the equine metabolic system and help you avoid nutrition-related pitfalls that sometimes affect even normal, healthy horses. With those goals in mind, here are five things to know about refeeding starved horses.

1. Some of the unseen effects of starvation are the most dangerous.

It is easy to see that malnourish­ment causes weight loss. Less obvious is the muscle waste, weakness, lowered tolerance to cold weather, decreased gastrointe­stinal function and impaired immunity that all result from starvation. It only takes roughly two months of feed deprivatio­n for a normal horse of healthy weight to become too weak to even stand, let alone walk or eat. As a general rule, horses who have lost 45 percent or more of their body weight due to lack of nutrients are unlikely to survive.

That’s because during a period of starvation, a horse’s body supports the basic functions necessary for survival by consuming fat and carbohydra­tes stored in its own tissues. And

As a general rule, horses who have lost 45 percent or more of their body weight due to lack of nutrients are unlikely to survive.

once those sources of nutrients are depleted, the body begins breaking down protein to derive energy. This process, which affects not only the muscles but also vital organs, leads

to the characteri­stic emaciated appearance of a malnourish­ed animal “wasting away,” and has grave effects on the horse’s metabolic system and overall health. In extreme cases, the damage done to a starved horse’s vital organs is too great for him to recover.

2. Water, not food, is what a starved horse needs most at first.

Before all else, the caretaker of a starved horse must ensure that he is sufficient­ly hydrated. Feeding a dehydrated horse can worsen his electrolyt­e imbalances and draw important minerals out of the bloodstrea­m and into the gastrointe­stinal tract.

Addressing this need is not always as simple as putting a bucket of water in front of the horse, however.

Horses who have been deprived of food for an extended period of time often have hyponatrem­ia (low blood sodium), and because sodium is the mineral responsibl­e for the thirst response, this may reduce their desire to drink. Besides, many are too weak and ill to physically do so. In these cases, dehydratio­n is best corrected with electrolyt­e-supplement­ed intravenou­s fluids, which a veterinari­an can administer.

After this initial re-hydration, providing clean, fresh water at all times during the horse’s nutritiona­l rehabilita­tion is essential.

3. Eating too much food too quickly can kill a starved horse.

If a horse has been deprived of food for any significan­t amount of time, he is at risk of developing somthing known as “refeeding syndrome.” That’s why it’s dangerous to simply give a starved rescue horse access to the same amount of feed that a healthy horse would normally consume. Starvation decreases the absorptive capacities of the equine digestive system and causes electrolyt­e imbalances. If a starved horse suddenly ingests large amounts of feed, the influx of carbohydra­tes, fat and protein has profound, serious consequenc­es for his metabolic system, which adapts to severe deprivatio­n by drawing nutrients from body tissues.

If a starving horse

During a period of starvation, a horse’s body supports the basic functions necessary for survival by consuming fat and carbohydra­tes stored in its own tissues.

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