A closer look: Lack, Loss, or Decreased Appetite (Anorexia) in Horses
Reduced appetite is common in horses. Horses’ appetite fluctuates depending on the time of year, the calories required to support activity levels, quality of the feed, and many other factors. Lack of appetite relating to these factors do not necessarily require veterinary attention. Examples include:
- Increased activity level
- Temperature changes
- Stress level
- Competition within the social hierarchy of the horse herd
- Loneliness or depression
- Management changes
- Dislike of particular feed
- Resistance to changes in feed
If poor appetite persists for several weeks, or the horse is dull or lethargic, showing signs of discomfort, or losing weight prompt veterinary attention is required.
Causes of anorexia in horses vary widely because many body systems are involved in eating and digestion. Horses that feel unwell because of an underlying illness generally have a poor appetite.
Horses may also stop eating if they cannot chew properly, swallow properly, or access their food.
Non-medical reasons horses may not eat include:
- Social hierarchy, including a boss horse, not allowing lower ranked horses to eat
- Unpalatable feed, either due to the horse’s preferences, spoiled feed due to mold, or behavioral resistance to changes in feed
- Issues related to psychological well-being, including separation anxiety, changes in management, or stress because of travel or other factors
The severity of anorexia in horses varies depending on the length of time it lasts, the underlying cause, and whether the horse is willing to eat anything at all.
Anorexia with a sudden onset typically indicates a serious underlying condition that requires emergency veterinary care, such as colic or choke. Similarly, anorexia accompanied by fever, excessive nasal discharge, kicking or biting at the abdomen, or rolling or thrashing on the ground requires emergency veterinary care.
Horses that are still eating, but with a reduced appetite, require prompt veterinary attention to identify any underlying conditions.
Testing and diagnosis
Diagnostic tools include:
- Physical exam
- Diagnostic imaging including X-rays and ultrasounds
- Oral examination
- Endoscopy to evaluate the stomach
- Rectal palpation
Treatment depends on the underlying cause. Treatments include:
- Dental float: adjusting the bite of the teeth by reshaping them
- Changes to the diet to soften feed, to stimulate the appetite, or eliminate irritants
- Intestinal protectants
- Supplementing missing nutrients
- Changes to feeding location
- Pain medications
- Anti-inflammatory medications
Lack or loss of appetite is self evident and not likely to be confused with other symptoms. A physical inability or lack of desire to eat may be confused with decreased food intake due to social or behavioral reasons.