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What Happens When A Horse Starves
 By Winniefield Park   •   9th Feb 2014   •   4,782 views   •   0 comments
What Happens When A Horse Starves

It's hard to believe that in North America, where we enjoy some of the highest standards of living, that animals, including horses, starve to death. It's shocking when news stories report stables full of starving horses, and it happens far too often. Most often, the animals can be rehabilitated. Sadly, others succumb to the effects of starvation, or must be euthanized. If a horse loses more than fifty percent of its body weight, it's unlikely it will survive.

Normally, when a horse is getting enough to eat, fat and carbohydrates from its food are used for energy, and nourishing and fueling of all of its body's systems such as brain function, circulation and digestion. As the fat and carbs are used up, they are replenished from the nutrients in its food. This is a process that is continuous throughout the horse's life.

When a horse doesn't get adequate nutrition, it starts to use stored body fat for energy. Once the carb and fat stores are depleted, the horse's gets energy from the breakdown of the proteins in its body. However, unlike fat, there are no extra reserves of protein in a horse's body. That means the body will start to extract protein from the horse's muscles and internal organs. There's no specific way that the body will do this, and a number of things can happen as the horse's condition declines.

Related: How to Feed a Starving or Malnourished Horse
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A horse that is starving will suffer from muscle wastage, and the internal organs will begin to atrophy. In young horses, bone growth can be affected, and growth can slow down or stop completely. In breeding stock, stallions will not be as potent and mares will have delayed estrus cycles. The horse's immune system will be weakened, leaving it more susceptible to viral diseases. Of course, the horse will be lethargic and lack energy. During the winter months, a starving horse may actually grow a longer coat, as the body tries to keep warm—and the coat can grow long enough that it somewhat disguises the real condition of the horse. A horse's body is designed so that their brain is the last organ to be effected by starvation. A horse that loses 40% of its body weight will need veterinary assistance to survive. Once the horse has lost about 50% of its body weight, death will follow closely as internal organs begin to shut down. This is why it is humane to euthanize severely emaciated horses before this natural and distressing process takes place.

It's important to remember that neglect isn't the only reason why horses starve. Some horses have malabsorption and digestive problems, and their digestive systems aren't able to extract the nutrients from the feed they eat. Internal parasites can damage the digestive system and external parasites like lice can cause a horse to lose large amounts of weight. Another problem is dental issues—either severely hooked teeth with sharp edges that make it painful for a horse to chew, or missing teeth in older horses make it impossible for the horse to masticate hay or grass. Cancer, or other chronic disease may also cause horses to become severely emaciated. In cases like these, neglect is not the problem, and a horse may appear to be in very severe condition, despite the owner taking all measures to care for them properly.
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