Inflammatory Bowel Disease in Horses

Recurrent colic in horses remains an important and concerning condition, contributing to pain, loss of use, death, and economic losses associated with diagnosing and treating the condition. According to one recent review article*, many causes of recurrent colic exist, including the following:

  • Internal parasites;
  • Gastric ulcers;
  • Hindgut acidosis;
  • Large intestinal obstructions;
  • Intestinal neoplasia such as lymphosarcoma or other masses;
  • Small intestinal stenosis, obstruction, or muscular hypertrophy;
  • Abdominal abscesses or adhesions;
  • Chronic grass sickness;
  • Spasmodic colic, colonic displacements; and
  • Inflammatory bowel disease.

The term “inflammatory bowel disease,” or IBD, refers to a cluster of conditions characterized by infiltration of the intestinal wall with populations of plasma cells, eosinophils, lymphocytes, basophils, or macrophages. IBD is classified based on the exact type of cells that invade the wall. Examples include lymphocytic-plasmacytic enterocolitis, granulomatous enteritis, and diffuse eosinophilic enteritis.

Infiltration of the wall with these cells can result in inflammation of the intestine and thickened intestinal walls, which reduces the absorption of nutrients and potentially blocks the passage of ingesta through the intestinal tract.

“Clinical signs of IBD in the horse include weight loss, colic, lethargy, and dependent edema, often associated with enteric protein loss and malabsorption of nutrients, including glucose,” described the researchers.

Medical management of these cases routinely involves corticosteroid treatment and dietary management. Although limited information on the nutritional management of IBD horses is currently available, researchers suggested the following based on their review:

  • Offer a complete pelleted diet, including hay pellets, if long-stem hay results in signs of obstruction through thickened portions of intestine;
  • Increase protein by feeding a highly digestible feed with at least 14% crude protein;
  • Feed beet pulp or other feeds high in digestible fiber as an additional source of nutrients. Stabilized rice bran (1 lb or 0.45 kg twice daily), for instance, may be beneficial; and
  • Supplement with fat to increase the energy density of the diet (e.g., 125-250 mL vegetable oil once or twice daily).

“A probiotic or hindgut buffer like EquiShure to help maintain a healthy intestinal microbiome are both reasonable options for horses with IBD,” advised Kathleen Crandell, Ph.D., an equine nutritionist forKentucky Equine Research.

One study suggested that horses with IBD benefit from a gluten-free diet.

*House, A.M., and L. K. Warren. 2016. Nutritional management of recurrent colic and colonic impactions. Equine Veterinary Education. 28(3):167-172.

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