Feeding Older Horses With PPID, IR, or Metabolic Disease

Feeding Older Horses With PPID, IR, or Metabolic Disease

Not all senior feeds are appropriate for horses with insulin resistance, equine metabolic disease, or PPID.

Photo: iStock

Author's note: Recently I wrote a piece about when to put a senior horse on senior feed. The article received the following question from Dawn McClean and a related comment.

Q. I currently have a 16-year-old Arabian mare who was diagnosed with Cushing’s disease (pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction, or PPID) two years ago. Her dam had exactly the same issue at the same age and I lost her at age 18 to a stroke. In both cases, the muscle-wasting is quite pronounced and laminitis is a looming problem, yet I am hesitant to try feeding a senior feed. I do remember that my previous mare lost weight very quickly soon after the laminitis appeared, and I really do not want to see that happen with the current one. Are there any parameters for offering feeds designed for seniors in this case? She does clean up her hay, so that is not an issue.

Dawn McClean

This is a very important consideration for some horses as not all senior feeds are appropriate for horses with insulin resistance, equine metabolic disease or PPID. Feeds fed to these horses, especially those fed in large quantities such as a complete senior feed, need to have low non-structural carbohydrates (NSC). Ideally 12 percent NSC or less. Some popular senior feeds have NSC values well above that making them inappropriate in these cases.

For these horses there are other safer options. Some brands of senior feed have low enough NSC even though they might not market the feed as being low-NSC. This information is unlikely to be on feed tags and will require a visit to the company’s website or potentially a phone call to confirm.

Others make a low-NSC feed that is not marketed as a senior feed, but rather as a complete feed with enough fiber in it to replace hay intake. Be careful, though, with feeds labeled low-starch or as being appropriate for horses with metabolic issues, as these could be designed for performance horses and might not be complete feeds. In your case they might work well as your mare can still consume her hay. Another caution: Not all these feeds are actually low enough in NSC for horses with metabolic issues. Some are truly low-NSC, while others are just lower than traditional performance sweet feeds. Again, check with the feed company to confirm.

Another alternative would be to find a low-NSC hay pellet and feed it with a low-NSC ration balancing feed (again not all ration balancers are low NSC so double check). If you need additional calories you can substitute some of the hay pellets with molasses-free beet pulp. The hay pellets and beet pulp provide the necessary fiber and the ration balancer provides a source of quality protein as well as needed minerals and vitamins to ensure horses’ nutritional requirements are met and the diet is balanced.

Another consideration for underweight senior horses is to feed a good prebiotic to help support digestive function. Research has shown that feeding live Saccharomyces yeast can help improve feed utilization and mineral absorption. This means that it could help your horse get more out of the diet that you are feeding.

About the Author

Clair Thunes, PhD

Clair Thunes, PhD, is an independent equine nutrition consultant who owns Summit Equine Nutrition, based in Sacramento, California. She works with owners/trainers and veterinarians across the United States and globally to take the guesswork out of feeding horses. Born in England, she earned her undergraduate degree at Edinburgh University, in Scotland, and her master’s and doctorate in nutrition at the University of California, Davis. Growing up, she competed in a wide array of disciplines and was an active member of the United Kingdom Pony Club. Today, she serves as the regional supervisor for the Sierra Pacific region of the United States Pony Clubs. As a nutritionist she works with all horses, from WEG competitors to Miniature Donkeys and everything in between.

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