Battle of the Bulge (Pt 1): Helping Overweight Livestock

Obesity can plague our livestock just as it plagues us, so here are some of the dangers overweight equines face and what to do about the issue.

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by Anna O'BrienSeptember 4, 2023
PHOTO: Eileen/Adobe Stock

Since we humans have enough to worry about regarding age-related issues and our waistlines, it somehow doesn’t seem fair that we also need to help our livestock from becoming overweight as they mature, too. Sure, some creatures we have are supposed to gain weight at an impressive rate, particularly younger animals destined for the processor or stockyard. But our older animals face similar weight problems that we do: extra pounds can be harder on the joints and impact mobility, and there are metabolic issues, too.

While farm animals are spared the fates of diabetes and high blood pressure, they have their own spectrum of metabolic diseases that stem from obesity. Over the next two months let’s take a closer look at equine and bovine weight issues.

Age-Related Metabolic Issues

It is shockingly easy to feed a horse to death. Imagine the American mustang, surviving on dry scrub out on the range or the Shetland pony on the craggy islands in the North Sea off Great Britain. Or how about the Arabian, light boned and fleet of foot, making do in the dunes of the Middle East? And now think of the typical backyard horse: stabled nice and cozy at night with hay, all the grass he could dream of during the day, plus grain twice daily to boot.

Is it any surprise that the “modern” equine diet could kill?

Simply put, our equines’ digestive tracks haven’t evolved fast enough to keep up with this plush lifestyle. Here’s what can happen.

As a horse piles on the pounds, his endocrine system can start to dysregulate. This in part is linked to genetics. Certain breeds such as ponies, donkeys and Morgans, for example, are more predisposed. Regardless, hormones such as insulin start to malfunction.

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Over time, an obese horse will start to pack away fat in odd places: in the crest of the neck and on top of the tail head. Sugar metabolism is impacted and the horse develops “insulin resistance” which in some ways starts to look suspiciously like Type 2 diabetes in humans and develops into a condition called “equine metabolic syndrome” or EMS.

A Serious Threat

The biggest threat to a horse’s health with EMS is the secondary complication of laminitis, commonly known as founder. This painful disease of the hoof is a direct result of wonky sugar metabolism and, as everyone knows, no hoof, no horse. A severe case of founder is extremely painful and can disrupt the connection of the bone inside the hoof to the hoof wall to the point of lethality.

EMS can be avoided; if not avoided, it can be managed and managed successfully. But it can be challenging. We want to feed our horses and give them treats, don’t we? After all, providing food is one way we show love. Battling the bulge then requires tough love in the form of a strict diet.

Limit Livestock Treats for Overweight Animals

Putting a horse on a diet starts with measuring his weight. Use a weight tape (purchased at any local feed store or online) and record your estimate. Then work with your veterinarian to decide what—if any—grain the horse should have. There are low-carb diets and some with different carbohydrates, especially for EMS horses available if your vet determines your horse still requires some grain supplementation.

Then: limit access to grass either by housing in a dirt lot or having the horse wear a grazing muzzle that severely limits how much grass he can munch at any given time. And finally, add or increase exercise to burn excess calories and add muscle tone if the horse is sound to work.

Finding the right diet plan for your horse can take a lot of time and plenty of trial and error. It’s far easier to keep your horse or other livestock animal from becoming overweight than get him to lose weight. Same for us, right? So take a look at the equine outside your window right now and reflect on how he looks and what he’s eating.

Small changes add up over time, whether the scale moves up or down. Again, same for us, right?


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