Diarrhea in Horses: The Dos & Don'ts

February 01, 2021

Diarrhea in Horses: The Dos & Don'ts

Diarrhea is fecal waste that is excessively loose or liquid-like. It is fairly common for most animals and humans to experience this occasionally, but you notice your horse experiencing diarrhea, watch for other warning flag symptoms such as colic and other fecal changes. Be ready to call your vet or emergency animal service if the problem persists for longer than a day. 

Being vigilant and following these do's and don'ts could help prevent diarrhea, treat it, or even save your horse's life.

The Dos

1. Do introduce your horse slowly to major changes

A common cause of diarrhea is a major change in diet or setting, such as moving to a new barn or area. There isn't much you can do when moving your horse other than to stay with them and be as calm as possible while they adjust. If the stress of moving causes loose bowel movements, then it can be expected that within a day they will relax, and diarrhea will stop. 

If your horse's new home has pastures with lots of green grass, this can also be a change in their diet and potentially trigger diarrhea. If this is the case, be careful to only allow your horse to graze for a few minutes on the first day, then an hour the next, and slowly work up to spending the day out to pasture

2. Do Watch For Other Related Symptoms

While diarrhea is not inherently an illness or a sickness, it can be a symptom of a serious illness. This change in bowel movements is sometimes a result of stress, or a stomach virus, GI problems, or cancer. Make sure to watch for telltale signs of a serious underlying problem with your horse, such as blood or mucus in the feces. 

3. Do Beware Of Colic

Colic is any form of gastrointestinal pain that your horse may experience. It can be identified by the animal rolling excessively, laying in odd positions, or if there are no digestion sounds coming from their gut (hearing noise is normal). 

While colic can be caused by a number of different things, if it is present at the same time as diarrhea, there may be a serious problem causing both. If you see symptoms of your horse experiencing colic and diarrhea, calling the emergency vet should be your next move. 

4. Do Make Sure Your Horse Is Hydrated

Because of the nature of horse diarrhea, where the body expels excess water and electrolytes through the feces, there is a high risk of the animal becoming dehydrated from the loss of water. 

You can check to see if your horse is dehydrated by performing a skin pinch test. Pinch a small section of skin and determine if it takes more than a second or two to return to normal position. If the skin remains in place or is slow to return to normal, your horse is dehydrated. 

To avoid this as much as possible, provide regular and electrolyte-infused water to replenish what is being lost through the bowels. 

5. Do Call the Emergency Vet If Diarrhea Lasts More Than 24 Hours

If your horse's abnormal bowel movements last longer than 24 hours, then a vet should come to take a look and check for diseases or parasites potentially causing the distress. In extreme cases, diarrhea treatment in horses can include IV electrolytes and fluids, as well as steroids. 

The Don'ts

1. Don't Change Your Horse's Feed Too Quickly

Changes in feed can cause a horse to react as it adjusts to the new feed. Oftentimes, different brands will have slightly different amounts of fiber or vitamins, and your horse's gut may react to the change by causing diarrhea.

The best way to change feed brands is by mixing the new brand with the old with increasing proportions. Slowly increase the percent of new feed in your horse's meals over the course of a week. This will allow your horse's digestive system to adjust to the new food without a sudden shock and diarrheic reaction.

2. Don't Ignore Foul Smells

If your horse's manure is not forming the typical soft baseball-sized piles, or the smell is particularly foul, this is a bad sign or indication that they might develop diarrhea in the near future. 

If you notice this, be prepared to make a dietary change, call the vet or decrease pasture time to prevent your horse from progressing to diarrhea and dehydration. Feces always smell, but you should pay attention and be aware if it becomes worse. 

3. Don't Pasture Your Horse If They Have Diarrhea 

If your horse has excessively loose bowels and abnormal feces, they should not be turned out to graze on green fields. Eating this plant matter can irritate their stomach further. 

Keep them in the barn and stick to the usual hay or feed that they are used to. Introducing lush grazing time slowly is a good way to avoid negative reactions and irritation, as too much grazing on the green stuff can be the cause of diarrhea. 

4. Don't Leave Your Horse Alone For More Than a Few Hours

Horse diarrhea symptoms have the potential to be dangerous and even deadly. The severity is related to the potential dehydration, colic and breakdown in the lining of the stomach. Your horse will need encouragement to drink water and immediate veterinary intervention if other symptoms are present. 

Ill horses can decline within hours, so you should stay with your animal in case veterinary care is needed. Afterward, monitor their condition hourly until it improves. 

Final Thoughts

Diarrhea in horses is a serious symptom that sometimes passes in a few hours, but can also indicate an underlying disease or parasite that needs medical intervention to treat. 

Paying close attention and keeping your horse's diet steady are the two most important things to remember when dealing with a horse showing signs of gastrointestinal problems. 

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