The economy is hurting and many horse owners have lost their jobs, homes, and, in some cases, their horses. Drought, pressure to raise grain rather than hay, and rising fuel costs have pushed hay prices to unprecedented highs. In an ideal world, horse owners unable to care for their horses would sell or surrender them before their health was jeopardized. Waiting too long to do this leads to weight loss, illness, and death. Concerned horse enthusiasts should take action to get help to neglected horses, bringing them to the attention of the local animal humane officer and/or sheriff. Seizure is just the first of many steps needed to bring neglected horses back to health.

Starvation cannot be solved overnight. A chronically underfed horse uses up its body fat, then its muscles, for fuel. Its ribs, hip bones, and, in severe cases, even its vertebrae will be visible. Immediate provision of an abundance of feed, especially grain, produces a metabolic disaster for the rescued horse called "refeeding syndrome." The horse's digestive system is not prepared for this sudden diet shift and often cannot handle even just good-quality hay. Diarrhea, colic, and swelling of the limbs, sheath, and abdominal wall might develop. These complications can usually be avoided by introducing feed very gradually, beginning with small amounts of grass hay multiple times a day. The amounts can be increased gradually to a full ration of hay in five to seven days. Depending on the horse’s health, he might be able to handle more hay sooner, or he might need to be brought along more slowly.

Next, a ration balancer should be gradually introduced, and/or a concentrate with a reasonable fat level (senior feeds are useful). Water should be provided at all times, as well as access to trace mineral salt.

The change in feed intake in rescued horses often produces an increase in metabolic rate and, consequently, respiratory rate. If a horse is used to being outdoors and is now ensconced in a heated barn, he might be overly warm. A fan on the horse can help bring the respiratory rate down. This rapid respiratory rate should not be mistaken for pneumonia.

A neglected horse can be very susceptible to stress. This is one reason to postpone noncritical medical treatments. To minimize the impact of all of this change, a number of steps can be taken. The horse needs to feel safe so that it can rest. It can be helpful to keep one of its buddies in the same stall or pen. If this is not possible, another horse should be within sight. Minimize the number of visitors, keep noise levels minimal, and turn lights out at night to encourage the horse to sleep.

A veterinarian should examine the rescued horse as soon as possible. He or she might take photographs to document the animal’s condition should legal proceedings against the former owner be likely. Underlying health issues need to be identified so treatments can be planned. Common maladies seen in debilitated horses are parasites, overgrown hooves, poor dentition, and skin disease, including lice, ringworm, and rain scald (dermatophilosis). These problems cannot be fixed all at once without compromising the patient. 

Every horse deserves a chance. We all can do our part by supporting our local rescues and educating horse owners about the health needs of horses.

About the Author

Julia H. Wilson, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM

Julia H. Wilson, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM, is an Associate Professor of Veterinary Population Medicine and Division Head of Large Animal Medicine at the University of Minnesota.

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