Cribbing Weanling

I have a client with a foal that was weaned a few days ago, and it has started cribbing. Within only a few hours after it was separated from the mare, it was seen doing something funny that the owners now appreciate was cribbing. Once they realized what it was doing (on day two or three), they immediately turned it out and have not seen it crib outside. This foal had been used to being in the stall, so they don't think it's just the stall. There are other weanlings in stalls all around it. It doesn't appear to be any more stressed than the others.

Any comments or suggestions? Have you ever seen a foal start cribbing in association with weaning? Any new studies or references on cribbing that we all could read? They really want to nip this in the bud. --Veterinarian via phone

 First, your call is not the first to describe a foal that was seen to start cribbing within hours after weaning. I have not seen it myself. Almost all the foals I have observed regularly before and after weaning were weaned naturally by their dams. In that population, none have become cribbers.

There does seem to be an association of weaning and the onset of cribbing, particularly when the foal is slow to start eating or when the diet includes considerable amounts of concentrated feeds. Although there apparently are no figures on the link between weaning and onset of cribbing, there is survey data available indicating that about half of the horses that crib start between two and five months of age.

It could be that weaning increases the likelihood of cribbing, or the age of onset might be coincidental with the period when many foals are weaned. But situations such as you describe make you wonder.

Under natural conditions, weaning from the udder occurs gradually over a period of many months while the foal is still with the dam and herd. As the milk supply of the dam reduces and foraging of the foal increases, time spent nursing decreases. Under these circumstances, the change from milk and no forage to no milk and all forage is very gradual.

Quite conspicuously, the soothing aspect of nursing continues as needed and for long after the nutritional aspect of nursing all but stops. In times of momentary stress, the foal runs to the dam and seems to be calmed as it approaches and nuzzles the udder and flank, even if the foal doesn't latch on or ingest any milk.

This is in contrast to abrupt separation weaning before the age of one year, as is commonly the case in domestically managed horses. Few people would question that abrupt separation weaning is more stressful for most foals than gradual separation. The stress is psychological and physical, and the degree probably depends upon many factors, including how early it is done, whether or not the foal has been and is weaned with companions, and the temperament of the individual.

Since the onset and performance of cribbing is believed to be related to emotional and gastrointestinal stress, my suggestion for a foal that has been first noticed cribbing at the time of weaning would be to immediately rejoin the mare and foal. In fact, if it were my mare and foal, I would just put them back together and make plans for a more gradual weaning as far into the future as possible. If the foal stopped cribbing when this was done, I probably wouldn't try to separate them again for many more months or even until after the foal had weaned naturally.

It might seem counterintuitive to reunite a mare and foal once separation has occurred. The logic is that once they are over it, it's better not to stir up attachments again. It's the same worry people have in doing a step-wise separation as opposed to a cold-turkey abrupt one. In the face of no systematic research to satisfactorily answer these questions, it could be argued that for a foal that started cribbing just after separation from its dam, the best strategy is to return it to the dam immediately.

With a pregnant dam, there is often the additional concern that for the sake of the new fetus, the mare needs relief from lactation. It's probably debatable whether a fetus would suffer before the mare dried up. My experience is that the mare dries up and naturally weans the foal from the udder while still letting it nuzzle for consolation. After all, this is how nature intended it.

If drying up the mare is a huge concern, there are udder covers made for this purpose ( I have not used them, but they are available for what is becoming known as "humane weaning."

Another strategy is to keep the mare and foal separated for a week or so along a safe fenceline where they can come close to one another for support, but the foal can't reach the udder to nurse. Once the mare dries up, you can reunite them and the mare will naturally resist the foal's attempts to nurse, but allow nuzzling for consolation.

If reuniting the mare and foal is not possible or acceptable to your client, an alternative would be to keep the weanling at pasture with a stable group of companions for social support. Watch carefully to see if it is still cribbing. I would keep it on grass and grass hay continuously with as little grain supplement as possible, fed in as many increments spread out around the clock as possible.

There is a well-established association between concentrated feeds and cribbing. There's more than one theory about why that is. One of the simplest is that the horse is naturally designed as a grazer to be chewing, salivating, and swallowing saliva almost continuously. One of the roles of saliva is to buffer the gastrointestinal (GI) tract (reduce its acidity). Concentrated feeds reduce eating time, thus reducing the frequency of swallowing and total amount of saliva entering the GI tract. This leads to acidic GI conditions that cause discomfort and can lead to gastric ulcers.

Since cribbing increases salivation, it has been proposed that cribbing might relieve the acidic GI conditions. There is also some research indicating that administering antacids--for example, adding antacids to concentrated feeds--reduces cribbing in established cribbers.

Further Reading

Concerning your question about reading material, there are a couple of recent review papers on cribbing and other stereotypies in horses from the physiology and behavior laboratory of Daniel Mills, BVSc, PhD, MRCVS, RCVS specialist in veterinary behavioral medicine, animal behavior, cognition, and welfare, and professor of veterinary behavioral medicine at the University of Lincoln in Lincoln, England. One is a chapter in a new book called The Domestic Horse: The Evolution, Development, and Management of Its Behavior, edited by Daniel Mills and Sue McDonnell, Cambridge University Press, 2005. Mills outlines the current evidence and gives references to original studies supporting the theory that feeding concentrates to weanlings changes the pH of the gut, predisposing them to gastric stress, ulcers, and cribbing. Another review by Mills can be found in the proceedings of the 2005 AAEP meeting, where he gave a presentation in the Behavior In-Depth session.

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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