Causes of Poor Equine Body Condition in Nicaragua

While we might be quick to judge that these animals are not receiving enough food, the reality is that dental issues, parasites, or other diseases or conditions might be contributing factors.


One of the most obvious signs of welfare issues in working equids is emaciated body condition. While we might be quick to judge that these animals are not receiving enough food, the reality is that dental issues, parasites, or other diseases or conditions might be contributing factors.

Sara Gomez-Ibanez, DVM, of Sustainable Veterinarians International, has participated in a number of equitarian projects in Central America—“equitarian” referring to volunteer equine veterinarians sustainably improving working equid health. During an October 2014 Equitarian Workshop in Nicaragua, she decided to investigate several infectious and parasitic conditions of working equids there and see how they correlated with low body condition scores.

She presented her results at the 2015 American Association of Equine Practitioners Convention, held Dec. 5-9 in Las Vegas.

“As a veterinarian, I wondered why some horses looked so much better than others in the same area,” she said. “I started asking (the owners) questions and got recurring complaints: lethargy, inappetence, and ill thrift.”

She said she immediately wondered whether these horses might be suffering from tick-borne diseases, equine infectious anemia (EIA), or parasite infections.

In her study, Gomez-Ibanez selected 35 working horses at random from four of the Equitarian Initiative-organized veterinary clinics. She conducted full physical examinations on the horses and took blood and fecal samples for laboratory analysis.

Based on her observations and the lab results, Gomez-Ibanez determined that:

  • The horses were, on average, 8.4 years old;
  • The average body condition score was 2.9 (on the 1 to 9 scale);
  • 33 horses (94%) were anemic;
  • 34 (97%) were seropositive for the causative organisms (Theileria equi or Babesia caballi) of the tick-borne disease piroplasmosis;
  • Four (11%) were positive for EIA; and
  • 24 (83%) of 29 horses for which fecal samples were available had strongyles; 19 of those were classified as moderate or high shedders.

She said her ability to draw correlations between these conditions and BCS was limited by the small study size and the uniformly low body condition scores (no horse scored higher than 5).

However, “two factors did suggest a possible correlation with low BCS: seropositivity for EIA and a positive PCR (polymerase chain reaction test, which finds pathogen DNA) result for T. equi,” she said, adding that a larger number of study horses would be needed to confirm these findings.

“In the case of EIA, confirming this correlation would provide more evidence in favor of enhanced control and surveillance programs,” Gomez-Ibanez concluded. “In the case of T. equi, confirming this correlation could in turn generate two different hypotheses: 1. that the active form of the disease causes poor body condition, and/or 2. that the horse’s ability to control T. equi parasitemia is dependent upon having adequate overall body condition.”

In a nutshell, poor body condition in working equids is multifactorial, she said, and it’s nearly impossible to separate simple malnutrition from other diseases. Gomez-Ibanez noted that she hopes to encourage more equitarians to take more blood samples in the field to test for these diseases.

About the Author

Alexandra Beckstett, The Horse Managing Editor

Alexandra Beckstett, Managing Editor of The Horse and a native of Houston, Texas, is a lifelong horse owner who has shown successfully on the national hunter/jumper circuit and dabbled in hunter breeding. After graduating from Duke University, she joined Blood-Horse Publications as Assistant Editor of its book division, Eclipse Press, before joining The Horse.

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