Feeding for Special Needs

Learn about feeding programs to help manage these five disorders in horses.

Cushing’s Disease
By Harold C. Schott, DVM with Elaine Pascoe, excerpted from Practical Horseman, March ’05
Avoid sweet feed and other concentrates high in sugars and starches, unless that’s all your horse will eat. Switch him instead to a pelleted “senior” feed or to another feed that’s high in fat and fiber rather than starch and sugar. This is important because many horses with Cushing’s develop glucose intolerance and have trouble processing sugars and starches in feed. Sweet feed and similar feeds can also cause their blood levels of glucose and insulin to spike abnormally, contributing to chronic laminitis, excessive thirst and some other effects of this disease.

Supplements containing magnesium or chromium are sometimes suggested for horses with Cushing’s disease, although direct benefits haven’t been shown. Magnesium (to achieve a calcium/magnesium ratio of 2-to-1 in the total diet) is recommended because magnesium deficiency appears to be a risk factor for insulin insensitivity and type 2 diabetes in humans. Also, some reports suggest that it may help horses with obesity-related laminitis.

| Photo by Charles Mann

Chromium is recommended for carbohydrate metabolism and to improve insulin sensitivity in type 2 diabetes (again, in humans). In one study of normal yearlings, a chromium supplement did increase glucose uptake during a glucose-tolerance test. But research hasn’t shown yet that either chromium or magnesium supplements specifically help horses with Cushing’s disease.

Equine Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy (EPSM or PSSM)
By Elaine Pascoe with Stephanie Valberg, DVM, excerpted from Practical Horseman, October ’06
Eliminate grain and sweet feed. These feeds raise blood sugar and prompt the body to release insulin, driving more sugar into the cells–just what the PSSM horse doesn’t need.

Feed fiber and fat. Grass and grass hay provide energy as well as fiber. Fats can provide extra calories as needed. Corn oil and stabilized rice bran (which is 20 percent fat) are good sources. Another option is a high-fat-and-fiber/low-starch balanced feed such as Re-Leve (a product from Hallway Feeds).

For an acute attack where your horse is tying up, withhold grain. Feed only hay until his symptoms subside.

Hyperkalemic Periodic Paralysis (HYPP)
By Elaine Pascoe with Stephanie Valberg, DVM, excerpted from Practical Horseman, October ’06

  • Establish a regular feeding and exercise schedule, with two or three equal feedings a day. Don’t let your horse fast or run out of water.
  • Feed grass or oat hay (or pasture). If you use alfalfa, which is high in potassium, mix it with grass hay or oat hay and grain (oats are the best grain choice) to decrease the total potassium in the diet.
  • Avoid rapid changes in diet.
  • Provide a white salt block or feed loose salt.
  • During an attack, feed grain or a quarter-cup of Karo? syrup, both of which can lower blood potassium.

By Elaine Pascoe with James Belknap, DVM, excerpted from Practical Horseman, February ’08
A number of supplements and herbal products are marketed as aids for horses with laminitis. Clinical studies have yet to show that any of them are helpful. But horses with metabolic problems need special low-carbohydrate, high-fiber diets and, often, medication. If there’s a chance that your horse is in this group, your vet can run blood tests and send away a sample of your hay for analysis to help you figure out a program for him.

Recurrent Exertional Rhabdomyolysis (RER)
By Elaine Pascoe with Stephanie Valberg, DVM, excerpted from Practical Horseman, October ’06
Cut back on grain, and add a fat supplement to make up the calories. In controlled trials at the University of Minnesota, RER-prone Thoroughbreds had more muscle damage on 11 pounds of grain a day than on a high-fat/low-starch diet with the same calories–and there was no tying up on the low-starch diet.

Give your horse an electrolyte or salt supplement daily.

To read more about feeding special-needs horses including high-performance, broodmares, growing youngsters and seniors, see the article “Feeding for Special Needs” in the August 2008 issue of Practical Horseman.

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