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How to Feed a Starving or Malnourished Horse
 By Winniefield Park   •   8th Feb 2014   •   3,469 views   •   0 comments
How to Feed a Starving or Malnourished Horse

One of the things I miss about having my own pastures is that I enjoyed rehabilitating horses that were down in condition. There is something very satisfying about watching the sharp angles of a skinny horse round out, life come back into their eye and energy return to their stride.

If you and I are really hungry, we sit down to a good meal and fill up. However, things aren't quite that simple for a starving horse. It's tempting to think that the solution to starvation is lots and lots of food. But, we could be doing more harm than good if we allow starving horses to eat all they want. Something called 're-feeding syndrome' can occur in starving horses allowed to take in a lot of starchy calories all at once. The sudden intake of a lot of carbohydrates causes a spike in insulin production — the hormone that makes the body's cell absorb glucose from the carbs, into the blood. This causes a change in the electrolytes (minerals and salts) in the blood, and the red blood cells break down, causing respiratory failure. Death can occur three to five days after the first meal.

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Horses that are severely emaciated may also be dehydrated, their electrolyte balances may be askew and intravenous fluids may be the safest way to ensure the horse is getting the fluid it needs. To encourage the horse to drink, it may be recommended that you add salt to its water. The horse's digestive system may also have been damaged or impaired, and the horse will be more susceptible to disease and infection. So any severely emaciated horse will need the careful attention of a veterinarian.

Small amounts of low carb food, served in frequent intervals is the best strategy. Alfalfa hay is most often recommended. For an average-sized horse, one pound (.5 kg) of alfalfa hay should be fed every four hours. Slowly the amount of food can be increased, while the number of feedings a day can be decreased. After about ten days, the horse can be allowed to eat as much hay as it wants. It's important not to feed grain or other concentrates during this time period, to avoid the possibility of the horse getting too many carbohydrates. One study of rehabilitating starving horses included feeding corn oil with the alfalfa, but it was felt that there was no particular benefit to doing this. If the horse can't chew, because of injury or dental problems, alfalfa hay cubes can be soaked to make a slurry. Beet pulp isn't recommended at this point, because of the higher carbohydrate content.

After about ten days to two weeks, the horse can eat alfalfa hay free choice, as much as it wants. If you suspect dental or parasite problems, you can address these. You should hold off feeding concentrates as long as possible. Provide plenty of fresh water, and loose salt.

It may take several weeks for the horse to start feeling more energetic. Mineral imbalances can cause a horse to become irritable, or continue to be lethargic. Blood tests can help determine any complications, and the help of your veterinarian, or an adjustment to the feeding schedule may solve these problems. The process of re-feeding a horse is slow and it's months before they are fully recovered. However, it is one of the most satisfying processes a horse owner can take part in.
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