Horse & Rider

Diarrhea: Is It Serious?


Learn how to tell the difference between loose manure and potentiall­y deadly diarrhea—and how to protect

your horse when the condition strikes.

What four words from a client make my heart race and my palms sweat? “My horse has diarrhea.” Not what you were expecting? You might think I’d be more concerned by such statements as, “My horse is down, and he can’t get up,” or, “He can’t bear any weight on his leg.” But in reality, it’s diarrhea that gets my full attention almost every time.

The reason is simple. If diarrhea is bad enough to make a client call the veterinari­an, chances are, it either means there’s a really sick horse in a barn full of others at risk of getting sick, or it’s a chronic problem that will be almost impossible to diagnose and even more difficult to treat. Either way, there’s a good chance I’ll spend sleepless nights trying to figure out how to help.

Diarrhea is hard to diagnose and frustratin­g to treat. In a worst-case scenario, it can even be a life-threatenin­g emergency that requires aggressive, immediate treatment. Even if it’s just a soggy mess, solving your horse’s diarrhea problem will require persistenc­e and a heavy dose of patience.

Here, I’ll explain what diarrhea is and how it happens. Next, I’ll outline the factors that can help you determine whether the diarrhea is a serious health threat or simply an annoyance. Finally, I’ll give you the steps to take to protect your horse (and the other horses in your herd) when diarrhea strikes.

What It Is

Diarrhea is an intestinal disorder that causes frequent fluid manure evacuation­s. In other words, your horse poops a lot—and that poop is juicy, wet, and messy. Your afflicted horse might leave “cow pie” piles, might pass what appears to be a normal poop followed by a spray of water or, in the worst cases, might actually “spray the walls” with liquid.

But why does diarrhea happen? Normal

equine digestion begins the moment your horse takes food in his mouth. He chews to break his meal into small, digestible pieces and mixes feed with saliva that helps to buffer stomach acids.

After swallowing, feed is passed to the stomach, where it’s exposed to acids, liquefied, and passed on to the small intestine where the first real absorption of nutrients begins. If the digestive tract is functionin­g properly, simple sugars, amino acids (components of protein), and some vitamins and minerals will all be absorbed during the one to three hours feed spends in the small intestine before it passes to the large intestine. The large intestine acts as a kind of fermentati­on vat, dependent on a healthy population of normal microorgan­isms (called the microbiota) that help break down large, fibrous feed materials.

Fermentati­on in the large intestine produces volatile fatty acids—an all-important source of energy for your horse—as well as vitamins and proteins. The large intestine also plays a critical role in storing and absorbing water from ingested feed. In fact, the large intestine is responsibl­e for

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