How to Manage Starved Horses and Effectively Work with Humane and Law Enforcement Officials

"The role of the veterinarian in the community is very important (in equine welfare cases)," said Julie Wilson, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM, head of large animal medicine at the University of Minnesota's (UM) College of Veterinary Medicine. "We're perceived as the experts on horse health and advocates for the welfare of the horse. In an ideal scenario, horses that have been seized by humane organization officials and local law enforcement should be evaluated to determine if there's evidence of neglect or abuse, and to educate (owners) on how to take better care of the horses."

Wilson explained that when a horse's dietary intake fails to meet its energy needs, any fat or carbohydrate stores in its body are metabolized (burned for energy). After carbohydrate stores are exhausted, protein catabolism (breakdown for energy) begins, which leads to skeletal muscle wasting and depletion of protein from heart and intestinal tissues.

She and study co-author Drew A. Fitzpatrick of the Minnesota Hooved Animal Rescue Foundation wanted to test a protocol for processing and managing a group of severely malnourished horses, and to share those guidelines with other veterinarians. Before the study commenced, they had developed a protocol following a seizure of 45 horses in 2002. In early 2004, Wilson and colleagues treated 12 horses in the hospital from a seizure of 24 horses in Minnesota using that previously developed protocol. They had a very positive experience with that protocol, as well as communicating with the press. "We encourage you to participate in similar sorts of activities (use this protocol and work cooperatively with humane organizations and the press)," she said.

The following protocol was used to address the needs of the seized horses:

  1. Notify Liaison--"We've developed a point person in our group--me--and the humane authorities notify me as soon as they know they're doing a seizure," said Wilson. "We check to see if stall space is available at the hospital, let the staff know when they're going to arrive, and find out if there is any reason to do any isolation or immediate first aid. We make sure there are enough people to process the horses."
  2. Identify Animals--Wilson said that each seized horse is marked with livestock crayons or a neck tag. All animal handling is done as quietly as possible to minimize stress, particularly since these horses often have been handled only minimally. "An expert horse handler has been very helpful in getting these horses loaded and brought to us and in helping us that first day to get that initial work done on them," said Wilson. "It does take expertise to do that kind of handling."
  3. Weigh Animals--The animals are weighed on a digital scale or their weights are estimated with a weight tape.
  4. Prepare Stalls--Wilson houses seized horses in an aisle adjacent to the main hospital area that is typically used for respiratory cases. Since there is less traffic on this aisle, the horses remain less stressed. The stalls are well bedded and horses are offered fresh water immediately upon entering the stalls. "Many times we put two horses per stall to minimize social stress," Wilson added.
  5. Take Disinfection Precautions--Disinfectant-impregnated foot mats are placed outside the stall doors as precautionary infectious disease control measures.
  6. Examine Animals--The age of the animal is estimated based on its teeth and the skin is examined for evidence of ectoparasites (parasites on the outside of the body, such as lice), dermatophyte infections (caused by parasites that infest the skin), or wounds. Results are reported on a form. "Try to triage, noting any immediate abnormalities and body condition score," said Wilson.
  7. Photograph Animals--Each animal is digitally photographed; the images include a full lateral body shot, a head-on view showing facial markings, and any visible abnormalities. "These are useful for persuading juries that the horse owners were negligent," she said.
  8. Make a Medical Decision on Salvageability--"A horse is considered non-salvageable if it has evidence of a chronic and incurable disease that causes discomfort, if it is a hazard to itself or the handlers because of neurologic deficits, or if it has a hopeless prognosis for life," explained Wilson. If the horse is not salvageable, permission is requested from the authorities that have custody of the animal to euthanatize it. Horses deemed salvageable have their blood taken and tested for disease or any metabolic problems.
  9. Assess Parasite Load--Fecal flotation is performed to assess the animal's parasite burden and its possible contribution to poor body condition.
  10. Design a Diet--"It is important to determine what they've been eating when you get them," said Wilson. "If they have been receiving nothing, give them handfuls every hour of good-quality grass hay for the first day. Restrict hay access for horses who have had some poor-quality hay access (do this by hanging a hay net outside the bars of the stall)."
  11. Groom Animals--The horse is gently groomed to remove filth, burrs, and matted hair.
  12. Monitor Animals--The horses are carefully monitored for signs of colic or tachypnea (rapid or shallow breathing). If the latter is observed, stall fans are hung to improve air circulation.

The day after the horses arrive at the clinic, they should be treated for any apparent ectoparasites if they are in stable condition. A day later they are dewormed with half doses of fenbendazole. Wilson reminds veterinarians to pregnancy-check mares "as this impacts some of the future decisions in trying to place them in foster homes."

Subsequent management involves re-evaluating each horse daily and waiting to see how they do. If the horses develop limb edema (fluid swelling), they should be walked.

Grain or concentrates should never be fed until Day 4. "We use a half-pound of Equine Senior twice a day and gradually increase that to three pounds per feeding," she said. If they are still doing well, they begin feeding the horses three times per day. They have had minimal complications when re-feeding starved animals following this protocol.

Wilson warned that re-feeding syndrome can happen if horses are given too many calories too quickly. This is a metabolic crisis characterized by acute electrolyte and fluid shifts (as well as major swings in blood glucose levels) that occur during nutritional repletion of animals that have experienced significant suboptimal calorie intake. Typically, the syndrome would be observed within the first three days of re-feeding.

Once the horses begin gaining weight, Wilson says they are dewormed using ivermectin with praziquantel. Their feet are trimmed as well, but any elective procedures (including vaccinations) should wait until their body condition improves. In the meantime, the humane officers should get frequent updates on the animals.

Wilson says that the media has become a partner with the university due to the 2002 and 2004 seizures. "It does increase public awareness of equine health needs," she said. "This has been excellent PR for the vet hospital. We get permission from county and humane officials before granting media interview, photos, or filming. You should restrict comments to factual statements regarding the horse's condition (refrain from publicly judging the horse's owner or divulging that person's identity, if known)."

Additionally, the cases have helped Wilson's team forge a solid working relationship with local hooved animal rescues.

Observations Wilson made during the 2004 seizure with the 12 horses stabled at UM included the following:

  • Tachypnea was often observed by Day 2, probably due to increased metabolic rate, long winter coats, and the warmer temperatures and humidity of indoor stabling (to which the horses were not accustomed).
  • Two horses with low-grade fevers had tachypnea and inspiratory crackles (abnormal lung sounds when breathing in); both resolved.
  • The majority of the horses had low hematocrit levels (low levels of oxygen-carrying blood cells).
  • Three horses had decreased albumin in their serum (serum albumin maintains plasma pressure, and low serum albumin can indicate liver disease and malnutrition). 
  • A few of the animals had loose stools; all resolved without intervention. 
  • Two horses spent more time lying down than the other horses and had muscle fasciculations (twitching); those resolved as well.
  • Some needed medical intervention; one horse had maxillary sinusitis, while another had fractured his tuber coxae (hip bone) when jumping out of a pasture on its farm.
  • "We had astounding weight gains for a majority of the animals--up to 10 pounds per day on just hay," said Wilson.
  • Four horses had to be euthanatized due to extremely poor prognoses.

While there were no recumbent horses in this group at the hospital, some of the most debilitated horses were managed at the farm, where a sling helped them to their feet on multiple days. Those horses fully recovered. "If a horse is down for more than 48 hours, his prognosis is guarded," she noted.

The university hospital has been charging full price in the care of seized horses. With the staff and resources this type of situation demands, it is not economical to discount services. Thus, Wilson encourages area residents to donate to their local humane societies. "(In this case), this has enabled them to pay the university prices. Invasive procedures were minimal (in this seizure)," she said, so the charges weren't too high.

Wilson encourages facilities to be available and ready for seizure situations such as these. "We felt our systematic approach was beneficial and worked out well," said Wilson. "We had very good outcomes. Our humane officials thought our interest in this was wonderful. It has been a very emotionally rewarding process as well, and we've fulfilled our mission of being the advocate of the horse."

About the Author

Stephanie L. Church, Editor-in-Chief

Stephanie L. Church, Editor-in-Chief, received a B.A. in Journalism and Equestrian Studies from Averett College in Danville, Virginia. A Pony Club and 4-H graduate, her background is in eventing, and she is schooling her recently retired Thoroughbred racehorse, Happy, toward a career in that discipline. She also enjoys traveling, photography, cycling, and cooking in her free time.

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