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Wrangling on the Range #120

Diarrhea Puzzle; 'Horse Alone?'




Curing chronic diarrhea; overcoming the disadvantages of keeping
a solitary horse.


I have a 21-year-old mare with chronic diarrhea. She's maintained
a good appetite and hasn't lost weight. What might I try to fix
or lessen her diarrhea problem? 



Chronic diarrhea is one of the most challenging conditions for
equine practitioners, in both determining the cause and effecting
a cure.
The causes of chronic diarrhea are generally grouped into
inflammatory and non-inflammatory conditions. In the inflammatory
group are disorders related to infectious agents such as chronic
salmonellosis and chronic parasitism.
Especially in an older horse, it's important to test for
parasites. Because your horse appears bright and alert, is eating
well, and hasn't dropped weight or acted colicky, she's unlikely
to have gastro-intestinal neoplasia (cancer of the intestines);
an infiltrative bowel disorder (thickening of the bowel by stray
non-bowel cells, leading to loss of intestinal function); or
colitis caused by sand accumulation or enterolithiasis (an
intestinal stone).
Most of these inflammatory conditions are progressive and
generally characterized by weight loss and recurrent colic bouts.
From the non-inflammatory group, your mare may suffer from
abnormal fermentation of cellulose by the resident bacteria in
her large intestine. You can compare this condition to feed
intolerance, which is thought to be the result of excessive
acetate forming in the colon's contents, leading to less
absorption of sodium and water by the colon, hence increased
water content of feces. Horses with feed-related chronic diarrhea
remain bright, alert, and in good body condition, plus have
normal laboratory data.
Ask your veterinarian to perform a full physical evaluation on
your mare, including a rectal examination. During the same visit,
blood should be collected for routine hematological (blood cell
count and examination) and bio-chemical (organ-specific)
analysis, and feces submitted for a fecal egg count. If any blood
work abnormalities are present, then further diagnostics may be
These additional tests could include a complete abdominal
ultrasound exam, abdominal radiographs, and abdominocentesis
(also known as a belly tap), especially if an inflammatory
disease is the diarrhea's origin.
If your mare has normal blood work and no parasite burden,
consider progressively changing her diet to a different type of
hay or perhaps a pelletedfeed diet.
The "chicken-and-broth" diet for horses generally consists of a
non-hay based roughage such as shredded beet pulp. Also consider
adding a good trace mineral/vitamin supplement and probiotics to
aid digestion.
Last but not least, continue monitoring her overall attitude and
appetite, watching for any changes in weight. Notify your
veterinarian if she becomes depressed, goes off her feed, seems
colicky, or is unable to maintain hydration.

NICOLA PUSTERLA, Diplomate ACVIM William R. Pritchard Veterinary
Medical Teaching Hospital University of California, Davis
Learn more about an adequate parasite control program by
searching with that term at


I own just one horse and am concerned about keeping her by
herself. I know horses are herd animals, but will my horse
actually suffer in any way from being alone? can't afford another
horse, but I could perhaps get a goat. Would that help? 



Your concern is well-founded. Horses are herd animals, typically
living in bands of several mares, their foals and
yearlings, and one stallion. We looked at the question of
solitary horses some years ago by placing one horse where she
could see other horses if she stood on one side of her paddock,
but not on the other. Video surveillance showed that she spent
about half her time in a position where she could see the other
horses. This suggested that horses do want to see others of their
own kind, but don't have to see them continuously.
Then we put a different horse in the same paddock, but with no
other horses to be seen. This solitary horse spent more time
moving around and less time eating, behavior that indicates
To provide company-and lessen anxiety-for your horse, you could
get a goat, sheep, or miniature horse. Even chickens have served
this purpose. But another, less expensive solution is a mirror.
Horses don't recognize themselves in a mirror, so they think the
reflection is another horse. Be sure to use an unbreakable
acrylic mirror for safety, as some horses (usually stallions) may
attack the image they see.
Another option, surprisingly, is a large poster of a horse, as
some people have found that even this will calm an anxious solo
I'd start with a mirror or poster and move to a biological
companion if those don't help. You can tell if your horse is calm
if she's eating quietly without frequently pausing to walk around
and scan her environment. Also, if you notice bedding in her
tail, that means she's lying down at night-another sign that
she's content.
There are positive aspects of owning a single horse. She'll
become more attached to you, as you become her "band," and she
won't be bullied, kicked, or bitten by another horse.

KATHERINE A. HOUPT Animal Behavior Consultants of Northern

For more information, enter keeping your horse at home or
introducing a new horse to the herd into the search box at

Send horse health and behavior questions to
Include horse's age, breed, gender.


To be continued 

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