Empty Leg and an Attitude?

Q:Please help. No matter who we talk to we can't seem to figure out what's going on with my daughter's 14-year-old American Saddlebred gelding. He is losing weight, but he is eating everything in sight, and as of last week he started scraping his teeth on the bars and boards of his stall, which he has never done before.

About two months ago we moved him to a new barn. The main difference in this barn is that he can have some contact with the horses on both sides of him. He doesn't get turned out at all, as he is a show horse and he doesn't like to be outside. My daughter only rides him about a half-hour every other day, so it's not a hard workout for him.

We have had him tested for insulin resistance, and results came back as borderline, so we changed his feed from receiving two scoops of Strategy twice daily, along with free-choice hay, to one scoop at each meal and only two flakes of hay. That's when I noticed he started to lose weight.

So my question is what could be causing him to lose weight so rapidly, and why is he scraping his teeth on the boards? We really need some help here. We've talked to our vet, and he seems to be just as baffled about it as we are. Could the scraping of the teeth be that he's just bored or needs his teeth floated, or that he's missing my daughter? And as for the drastic weight loss, I'm just thinking he needs to be fed more.

Julie Kercher

A:The rapid weight loss you describe can be due to various causes. I am not exactly clear on the timeline, but I assume the problem started before you had the insulin resistance checked and reduced the feed. And I am assuming the weight loss is more rapid than you would expect with the feed reduction alone. So while reduced feed, of course, would be contributing to some continued weight loss, you expect something else is going on with this gelding.

Some of the physical causes that come to mind are gastric ulcers and liver disease. So be sure to have the horse checked for gastric ulcers. But what is more worrisome to me is that weight loss and sudden behavior changes, including the scraping of the teeth on bars that you describe, can also in rare cases be signs of liver disease. In such a case weight loss is due to liver malfunction, which can affect the brain. This can result in unique behavior changes and the emergence of unusual behaviors.

I've known of only a few horses that raked their teeth on the bars of the stall front in that manner. Three had liver disease and I was able to closely observe them: they displayed very unpredictable aggression and sudden changes in mood and mentation. Bloodwork could clear this up.

You asked about environmental and social causes. I'm fairly certain that the behavior changes as I understand them from your description are not just the result of boredom or "missing your daughter."

About the Author

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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