Help! My Horse Ate Chicken Feed: What Should I Do?

Help! My Horse Ate Chicken Feed: What Should I Do?

Not only is intestinal upset a worry, but some chicken-feed additives are highly toxic to horses and can also cause severe diarrhea and heart damage. Regardless of what type of feed your horse ingested, the first thing you should do is call your vet!

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Q. My horse just ate chicken feed and I’m worried about what might happen. What should I do?

A. Earlier this week an acquaintance called me in a panic: Her horse got into chicken feed, and she was (rightfully) concerned.

We are all aware that getting in to our equine feed room carries a lot of risk for the horse that escapes in the night, but eating feed made for other livestock species carries an added level of risk. The immediate concerns are for laminitis and intestinal upset, including colic. Depending on what feed the horse consumed, other long-term concerns also exist.

Regardless of what type of feed your horse ingested, the first thing you should do is call your vet!

I’m a big believer that when something like this happens—even if your horse looks perfectly fine—it’s worth giving your vet a call. First of all, your vet will help assess the situation’s urgency, identify risks, and let you know what clinical signs to look for if things start going wrong. Second, I think it is just a polite thing to do: By calling you are letting your vet know trouble might be brewing and they might be paying you and your horse an emergency visit that night. In the likelihood that your vet is juggling other cases, this will allow them to better plan if they are needed in two places at once!

Before you call, though, gather some information to share with your veterinarian:

  • How long ago did the horse consume the chicken feed? Signs of a problem may not be expected immediately so knowing how long ago it was consumed will help your vet determine when clinical signs might be expected.
  • How much chicken feed did your horse eat? You may not know for sure but give it your best guess.
  • Is the chicken feed medicated? If so, what with? Certain medications used in feed meant for other species can have significant negative health consequences for horses.
  • What are the other ingredients in the chicken feed? Cracked corn, whole wheat, and other grains fed to chickens aren’t necessarily well-digested by horses which can cause the starch they contain to enter the hindgut where it can cause intestinal upset. How the grain has been processed (steamed, cracked, extruded, etc.) impacts how well horses will digest it and the likelihood of it reaching the horse’s hindgut.
  • What are your horse’s current vital signs (pulse, respiratory rate, temperature) and how do these compare to normal in this horse? Does your horse have a regular or bounding digital pulse and is there any heat in the feet? To assess these things requires you to know what normal vital signs are for your horse. Make a point of knowing what is normal for your horse well before you are in a crisis situation.

Regarding the chicken-feed-consumption question I received last week, I contacted Julie E. Dechant, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVS, ACVECC, who works in equine emergency surgery and critical care at the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine. Not only is intestinal upset a worry, she said, but some chicken-feed additives are highly toxic to horses and can also cause severe diarrhea and heart damage. Dechant added that prognosis is improved by early and aggressive supportive care and preventative treatments, before clinical signs of intestinal upset and laminitis occur. This is, therefore, an extremely good reason to call your vet even if all looks to be well. Remember looks can be deceiving. Treatment should be instituted for at least two days, and longer if indicated. If a horse isn’t treated following ingestion of chicken feed and is showing no signs of laminitis or intestinal upset after three to four days, the horse might be okay (however, she noted, some of the signs of heart damage might develop much later).

When you combine the fact that you have no way of knowing what the outcome is going to be immediately after your horse has consumed chicken feed with the consideration that early intervention can be key to successful treatment, the bottom line is that you need to call your vet and then stay vigilant for at least the next three to four days.

Do you have an equine nutrition question? Thunes and The Horse’s editors want to hear from you! Send your questions to

About the Author

Clair Thunes, PhD

Clair Thunes, PhD, is an independent equine nutrition consultant who owns Summit Equine Nutrition, based in Sacramento, California. She works with owners/trainers and veterinarians across the United States and globally to take the guesswork out of feeding horses. Born in England, she earned her undergraduate degree at Edinburgh University, in Scotland, and her master’s and doctorate in nutrition at the University of California, Davis. Growing up, she competed in a wide array of disciplines and was an active member of the United Kingdom Pony Club. Today, she serves as the regional supervisor for the Sierra Pacific region of the United States Pony Clubs. As a nutritionist she works with all horses, from WEG competitors to Miniature Donkeys and everything in between.

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