Commentary

Cribbing

Q:I have a horse that cribs all the time. He is always hanging his teeth over his stall or the fence and sucking air. How bad is this for him, and is there any way to stop him permanently?


A:Cribbing is when a horse places its front teeth on a horizontal surface, arches its neck, and pulls backwards. This behavior is usually associated with a grunting noise as the horse gulps air, and is often referred to as wind sucking or aerophagia. This is a vice that many stalled horses pick up because of boredom. The habit is one that horse owners need to catch early if they are to be effective in breaking it.

If cribbing is left alone, and it worsens, it can become more than just an annoyance. If left unchecked, the horse will wear down its front teeth prematurely. In extreme cases, the teeth become so worn that they do not meet when the mouth is closed, which can lead to the second problem, weight loss. Weight loss associated with cribbing can occur because the horse wears its teeth down so far that grazing becomes a problem, or the horse fills its stomach with air rather than grass, hay, or grain and therefore causes a loss in body condition.

As if these problems weren't enough, colic is also known to be a complication of cribbing. Colic from cribbing is caused by the ingestion of air, which causes gas distention in the intestinal tract. Therefore, if the annoyance of the horse destroying property alone is not enough to prompt action, think of the physiological complications brought on by cribbing.

The key to managing cribbing is to catch it early. If caught early enough, within a couple of months, there is a good chance the habit can be broken. The first line of defense should be a cribbing collar, which is generally a several-inch-wide leather and metal strap that fastens snugly around the throatlatch. The collar is designed to create discomfort if the horse begins to crib. There are a variety of collars available, and some are more aggressive than others. The more aggressive ones have abrasive or sharp objects incorporated into the collar that create even more discomfort for the horse as it begins to crib. There is also a collar that fits over the forehead in front of the ears that has shown to be more effective than the traditional cribbing collars--which have limited success.

If the discomfort from a cribbing collar doesn't break the habit, there is a surgical procedure that can be performed to disable the horse from cribbing. The Modified Forssells procedure is performed under general anesthesia and involves removing a portion of the omohyoideous, sternohyoideous, and the sternothyroideus muscles. In addition, a portion of the ventral branch of the spinal accessory nerve is removed, which denervates the sternocephalicus muscle. The muscle itself is not actually removed, which makes it more cosmetic than the original Forssells procedure. The surgery is fairly common, and it is nationally recognized.

While there are no side effects associated with this procedure, there can be side effects associated with any surgery, such as anesthetic complications and the chance for infection.

The muscles clipped in the procedure are the ones primarily involved in the act of cribbing. The theory behind the surgery is that by removing the muscles, it eliminates the horse's ability to crib. However, it's not an all-or-nothing process because the more a horse cribs, the more he recruits other muscles to participate in the act. So, the longer the horse has been cribbing, the more muscles will be involved in the act. With a horse of this type, even after the Modified Forssells procedure is performed, the horse may still be able to crib, although not to the same extent as before the surgery. The procedure is more successful in horses who have been cribbing a relatively short time, or in horses who do not crib constantly.

In a study of 35 horses which had the Modified Forssells procedure perfomed on them, 60% had stopped cribbing altogether a year later, and 25% had shown marked decrease in their cribbing a year later. The success rate all depends on how long the horse had been cribbing prior to surgery. If performed before cribbing gets too bad, the success rate is much higher because this is an addictive behavior that gets worse with time. The more a horse cribs, the more it wants to crib. And the more a horse cribs, the less the chance of eliminating the habit.

About the Author

Thomas C. Bohanon, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVS

Thomas C. Bohanon, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVS, accepted a position as equine surgeon at Glenwood Veterinary Clinic in 2003, after he and his family spent a five years abroad on a 46 foot catamaran, visiting Turkey, Italy, and New Zealand. Dr. Bohanon became a full partner at GVC in 2005. Dr. Bohanon’s professional interests center around lameness evaluation and all types of equine surgery. He has published multiple papers in refereed journals and spoken locally, nationally, and internationally on these interests and his research. More information about Dr. Bohanon can be found at www.glenwoodvet.com.

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