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Should We Give Up On Starving Horses?

by Emma Quinn
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Researchers have found that successful recovery from starvation can improve a horses body condition on the nine-point body scale. But the horses ranking on the body scale already plays a big role in their chances of survival. So should we start starving horses that we can’t save?

© Images: Poulin Grain

When it comes to diagnosing a horses survival rate after starvation, their body condition plays a major part. For every point higher they score on the Henneke body condition scale, they’re more likely to survive. But while body weight, rectal temperature and white blood cell counts can support a horse’s diagnosis, Jennie Ivey, assistant director and equine specialist at the University of Tennessee, says the body condition score is the only way to predict if an animal will survive the first 100 days after starvation.

Starved horses, donkeys and mules usually have a difficult time recovering from starvation, as their stomach can no longer handle the large amounts of nonstructured carbohydrates needed to gain weight. As a result of starvation, and then not being able to handle carbohydrates, the animals can develop a fatal refeeding syndrome.

On a mission to find early signs that indicate which horses might survive the recovery period, researchers found a few factors that could help predict their chances of survival. They found that white blood cells were higher, and that body temperature was lower, in horses that didn’t survive. Even so, these differences aren’t significant enough to completely dismiss the body condition scale. Their findings: every point higher the horses score on the nine-point body condition scale, they’re nearly 15 times more likely to survive.

Ivey states that refeeding horses, mules and donkeys can be a huge challenge, so its important to consider whether it’s worth going the route of extended therapeutic efforts to save a malnourished horse, and if taking the risk of decreasing the welfare of the animal really is the best choice.

The Study “Clinical Factors Associated With Survival Outcomes in Starved Equids: A Retrospective Case Series,” was published in the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science.

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