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December 11, 2017
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community living

Equine metabolic syndrome

By Joseph A. D’Abbraccio, D.V.M.

Nearly 70% of adults in the United States suffer from obesity. Unfortunately, poor dietary behavior is also appreciated in our pet populations. While there are a number of diets for dogs and cats that include low carbohydrate, grain-free, unique protein, holistic, and even vegetarian options, not much is said for horses. Obesity is a serious health condition, but, unfortunately, many horse owners still look at a fat pony and think how cute it is, or look at a fat horse and compliment its big bones. However, science has shown that fat tissue is more than storage of energy.

Equine metabolic syndrome (EMS) is a common disease in pony breeds, Morgan horses and Paso Fino horses, but any horse can be affected. Horses with EMS are typically identified as easy keepers and historically do not require much feed to maintain their weight. A common physical trait of these horses is the presence of fat deposits in abnormal places. These deposits are particularly noted along the neckline, tail head, and over the ribs.

The mechanism behind EMS is not fully understood, but has been well documented that high insulin levels in the blood lead to laminitis (inflammation to the lining of the hoof walls) episodes in horses. In a normal horse, when an increase in glucose is noted, there is a slight elevation to insulin until the blood glucose is normalized. In a horse diagnosed with EMS, its body does not respond as it should to the insulin. The linings of the hoof walls become very sensitive to the extra sugar, which predisposes the horse to repeated bouts of laminitis.

A series of blood tests can be used to confirm the presence of excess insulin and sugar in horses suspected of having EMS. Particular attention is paid to the insulin-to-glucose ratio as a screening test if the horse has been fasted overnight. Episodes of laminitis can falsely elevate the level, and therefore it is recommended that horses be tested three to four weeks after a bout of laminitis.

By far, diet and exercise of horses with EMS is the most essential method of managing their disease. Horses should be fed according to their individual metabolic needs. Obese horses do not need concentrate feeds and can be placed on a simple diet of hay and a vitamin/mineral supplement. An obese horse should be fed 1.5 to 2% of its body weight in hay per day (10 to 20 lbs. of hay for a 1,000-pound horse). It is recommended to pre-soak the hay for 30 minutes to reduce the amount of simple sugars, as EMS horses are highly sensitive to such. Horses with EMS should not be given any grain and, when placed out on pasture, they should be on a dry lot or wear a grazing muzzle.

If a horse has an episode of laminitis, aggressive and guided medical management to control pain is very important. There are a number of supplements that your equine veterinarian will be able to review with you and see if appropriate for your horse. Hoof care and management of horses with EMS can be difficult. Radiographs of the affected foot are important to determine the aliment of the coffin bone within the hoof capsule. This information is very helpful for your veterinarian and farrier to have a better idea of how to best manage pain.

Equine metabolic syndrome is a common but very preventable disease, if proper nutritional management is practiced. It is important to pay close attention to how much your horse is fed and how much it consumes. Your veterinarian should evaluate your horse’s body condition score at least once per year during their annual check-up and vaccination. This evaluation will help to serve as an opportunity for early intervention.

[Contact Dr. D’Abbraccio at www.facebook.com/CatskillVeterinaryServices, www.catskillvetservices.com, or jdabbracciodvm@icloud.com.]