Diarrhea can affect horses of all ages, breeds and sizes, resulting in dehydration, weight loss, poor nutrient absorption or electrolyte imbalance.

Diarrhea is described as the increased excretion of liquid or semi-solid feces. Cases of equine diarrhea can range in severity from mild episodes to serious and long-term episodes, which may require veterinary attention.

Diarrhea itself is not a disease, but a symptom of another underlying condition. Unfortunately, the underlying cause is not identified in 50% of equine diarrhea cases. [1][2][3]

An imbalance of the gut microflora (known as dysbiosis), is a cause or result of many types of diarrhea in horses. This can be caused by dietary factors, although there are many reasons why a horse may have dysbiosis and diarrhea. [4]

This article describes the common causes of diarrhea, the complications associated with this condition, as well as methods to treat and manage non-infectious diarrhea in horses.

Common Causes of Diarrhea

Diarrhea in horses may arise from many possible causes, both non-infectious and infectious in nature. [1][5][6][7]

Non-infectious causes include, but are not limited to:

Infectious causes of diarrhea in horses may include:

  • Bacterial infection:
    • Salmonella
    • Clostridium difficile
    • Clostridium perfringens
    • Potomac horse fever
    • Aeromonas species
    • Lawsonia intracellularis in young horses
  • Viral infection:
  • Parasitic infection:
    • Larval cyathostomiasis
    • Strongyloides in foals
  • Protozoal infection:
    • Cryptosporidium parvum primarily in foals
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Non-infectious Causes of Diarrhea

There are many proposed non-infectious causes for diarrhea in horses. Ultimately, anything that interferes with fluid and sodium absorption, pulls fluid into the gut, alters motility or shifts the microbial population in the gut can predispose your horse to diarrhea.

Commonly described risk factors which may be influenced by management practice are listed below:

Carbohydrate Overload:

When diarrhea is observed in a horse, diet is often suspected as the most likely cause. [4]

The physiology of the equine gastrointestinal tract is specialized to the fermentation of fibre in the hindgut, composed of the cecum and colon.

Microbes in the horse’s hindgut ferment fibre in forages to produces volatile fatty acids (VFAs), which serve as a valuable energy source for the horse.

Additionally, the small intestine of the horse is limited in its capacity to digest starch from carbohydrate-rich meals. It contains limited quantities of the enzyme that breaks down starch (alpha-amylase). [8][9]

It is clear from the physiology of the equine gastrointestinal tract that horses have evolved to consume a diet high in fibre, and low in starch.

However, equine athletes have very high nutritional demands and increased daily energy requirements. To meet these increased requirements, competition horses are often given large quantities of commercial feeds, with high starch and sugar content.

Meals that contain large volumes of starch-rich feeds will likely overwhelm the small intestine’s ability to digest starch, resulting in the delivery of starch to the cecum.

As starch is rapidly fermentable, the cecum will produce increased lactic acid, causing the pH in the cecum to decrease and become more acidic. This can ultimately alter the hindgut microflora. [10]

The increased acidity in the hindgut leads to a decreased ability for the horse to ferment and digest fibre as well as a decreased utilization and absorption of short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) for energy.

A low pH in the hindgut may also lead to disruption of the intestinal mucosal barrier and hindgut ulcers.

This may result in the increased absorption of harmful pathogens and changes in intestinal motility, causing inflammation and diarrhea. [11][12][13][14]

However, alteration to the point of a disrupted mucosal barrier and ulceration would be very extreme. More common is soft manure with a diet high in grain or young grasses. Disrupted fermentation means lower levels of SCFAs which are important for absorption of fluid in the colon.

Abrupt Changes to Diet:

A sudden change in the horse’s diet is a major risk factor for the development of diarrhea. This is a common reason why horses admitted for hospitalization develop diarrhea. [19]

Changes in the diet may include an increased consumption of grain or increased turnout and grazing time. [15] Horses evolved to eat a fairly uniform diet and it can take time for the bacterial population in the microbiome to adjust to feed changes.

Fructans, a type of fermentable storage carbohydrate found in grass may also be responsible for microbial changes in the hindgut. [16]

Horses very commonly ingest fructans. However, the fructan content in grass changes depending on weather and season.

Whether due to seasonal variation or changes in grazing patterns, a sudden increase in fructan consumption may result in the same adverse outcomes as seen with high consumption of concentrate feed. [16][17][18][19]

Ingestion of Toxic Plants and/or Substances:

Several plants and toxins have been recognized for their ability to induce diarrhea in horses. These include: [4][20]

  • Acorns
  • Castor beans & castor oil
  • Valerian
  • Yucca
  • Arsenic
  • Raw linseed oil
  • Propylene glycol

Antibiotic Use:

The administration of antibiotics is a recognized risk factor for the development of acute diarrhea in horses. The association of antibiotic treatment and equine diarrhea is estimated to be 22-28%. [2][21][22][23]

Every class of antibiotics has been implicated in the development of diarrhea. [24] There has been no published research on the relative risks of different classes of antibiotics.

Antibiotics disrupt the normal balance between the different bacterial species of the intestinal microflora. This may alter the metabolic function of the bacteria, causing changes in the metabolism of carbohydrates and VFAs.

Ultimately, this may result in the increased secretion and decreased absorption of water in the colon. The resulting dysbiosis may further result in the overgrowth of potential pathogens and inflammation in the colon. [24] These pathogens can include salmonella and clostridium.

Infectious Causes of Diarrhea

More research has been published on the infectious causes of equine diarrhea than the dietary causes. Bacterial infections, viruses and parasites can all contribute to diarrhea in horses.

Salmonella

Salmonella is frequently observed with antibiotic-associated diarrhea in horses. [23][24][25]

Other risk factors for the development of salmonellosis have been described including: [24][26][27]

  • Abrupt changes in feed
  • Transportation
  • Surgery
  • Colic
  • Hospitalization

Overall, any changes in microflora, intestinal motility, and VFA production can allow Salmonella to proliferate within the gastrointestinal tract.

Salmonella releases toxins and causes an inflammatory reaction, impairing the intestinal mucosal barrier, and negatively affecting absorption and secretion of water within the colon. [23]

Salmonella is consider zoonotic and is transmitted through fecal-oral route. Horses may become infected through contact with feces from contaminated horses or feces of other animals that shed Salmonella, such as birds and rodents. Outbreaks appear to be more common in veterinary hospitals. [28]

Along with diarrhea, horses affected with salmonellosis may present with: [28]

Horses may harbor low level infections with Salmonella and “break out” with diarrhea when under stress. [50]

Clostridia

Clostridia (c. difficile and c. perfringens) are bacteria which may cause diarrhea in horses. Clostridia are often associated with what was once called “Colitis X”, a severe acute diarrhea with hypovolemic shock and often death. [51][52]

They may be associated with dysbiosis stemming from antibiotic use in horses.

Another risk factor for the proliferation of clostridial bacteria appears to be the withholding of roughage. This may occur in horses awaiting general anesthesia or in those that are ill and have low appetite. [28][29][30]

The normal production of VFAs appears to be key in the prevention of clostridial overgrowth.

Horses may become exposed to Clostridia bacteria at a veterinary hospital, through the feces of a foal with diarrhea, or through the feces of a horse or foal recently treated with antibiotics. [28]

C. difficile and C. perfringens can be found in small amounts as part of the normal microflora. However, populations of this bacteria greatly increase in horses with diarrhea. [31]

Clostridia releases various toxins which can cause intestinal inflammation, disturbances to the intestinal microflora, changes in the intestinal mucosa, and necrosis (cell death). [31][32]

Diagnosing clostridia as a cause for equine diarrhea may prove difficult, due to its presence in the microflora of healthy horses.

Potomac Horse Fever (PHF)

Potomac horse fever (PHF) is an infectious disease first reported in 1979, along the Potomac River in Maryland, USA.  It is caused by the oral ingestion of the bacteria Neorickettsia risticii.

Neorickettsia risticii has been identified in aquatic insects and in the secretions of freshwater snails. [33]

This disease is not thought to be contagious, and its distribution is dependent on the season and geographic area. Risk factors for the development of PHF include grazing near water, including freshwater rivers, lakes and creeks. [5]

Along with diarrhea, horses affected with PHF have the following clinical signs: [5][28]

  • Depression
  • Fever
  • Anorexia
  • Laminitis

Complications Associated with Diarrhea

Dehydration

Intestinal inflammation can lead to increased water secretion, and reduce water reabsorption by the colon. This will result in diarrhea, and an increased volume of water lost in feces by the horse.

It has previously been calculated that a 500 kg (1100 lb) horse with diarrhea may have a daily fecal fluid loss that is 36 litres greater than a healthy horse. [34]

Horses with diarrhea may quickly become dehydrated if fluid intake is not increased to replenish lost fluids.

Electrolyte Imbalance

Horses with diarrhea often present with abnormal serum (blood) concentrations of electrolytes. These include potassium, sodium, chloride, magnesium and calcium. [4][35]

The hindgut is the primary site of electrolyte absorption. Inflammation in the hindgut results in decreased absorption of electrolytes, increased fecal losses, and possible anorexia or inappetence (loss of appetite). These factors may cumulatively result in electrolyte imbalance. [35]

Electrolytes have many important functions within the body, such as involvement in nerve and muscle function, influencing thirst and hydration, and maintaining optimal fluid balance within cells.

Nutrition Malabsorption

Diarrhea and intestinal inflammation may inhibit efficient nutrient absorption, which refers to the gastrointestinal uptake of nutrients from food in the diet. [36]

Additionally, any inappetence or anorexia that may co-exist along with diarrhea may be limiting or further causing imbalances in the horse’s nutrient levels.

Dietary Management of Diarrhea

If your horse presents with diarrhea, consider making changes to its diet to support healthy gut function.

The general dietary strategy described for a horse suffering from diarrhea includes: [4]

  • Limit or avoid commercial feeds high in starch
  • Limit or avoid the supplementation of vegetable oils
  • Limit pasture grazing
  • Provide forage as a source of highly fermentable fibre through a good quality grass or alfalfa hay
  • Supplement with probiotics
  • Increase water intake
  • Provide electrolytes in water alongside fresh water
  • Feed additional source of easily fermentable fibre (ie: psyllium or soya hulls)

Electrolytes

Horses with diarrhea should be provided with electrolytes in order to offset any potential electrolyte imbalance.

Electrolytes are especially important in horses that are dehydrated. Providing water, without electrolytes, may cause the horse to become even more dehydrated and electrolyte depleted. [37]

Electrolytes can be provided through oral supplementation or in the form of loose salt. Salt blocks should not be used as they do not encourage enough sodium consumption to replenish electrolyte levels.

It is generally recommended that electrolytes be provided in the drinking water. Providing electrolytes without water may draw water out of the extracellular fluid and into the digestive tract. [38] When offering electrolytes in water the horse should also have the choice of plain water or there may be insufficient water consumption.

Commercial electrolyte supplements are more effective than salt alone because they contain a full spectrum of electrolyte minerals and not just sodium chloride. However, sodium and chloride are the major electrolytes lost in diarrhea so care should be taken to also provide plenty of plain salt. Ask your veterinarian for advice on an appropriate formula.

Electrolytes containing sucrose and flavour may encourage horses to drink more when supplemented in their drinking water. [39][40] Electrolytes or salt can also be sprinkled on moistened hay to encourage their consumption.

Mad Barn’s Performance XL: Electrolyte supplement offers a convenient and effective way to re-establish electrolyte balance and prevent dehydration.

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Probiotics

Probiotics are live microorganisms supplemented in an animal’s feed. Probiotics are generally used to improve or maintain the community of beneficial bacteria within the gastrointestinal tract.

These bacterial organisms naturally populate the horse’s gut and confer a protective immune effect as well as supporting digestion.

Overall, studies investigating the effectiveness of probiotics for managing diarrhea in horses have had inconsistent results, and are dependent on the underlying disease and the strains of bacteria being investigated. [41] Some probiotic protocols have been found effective while others have not.

In foals, the provision of five different strains of Lactobacillus bacteria was successful in decreasing the incidence of diarrhea. [42]

Administering Saccharomyces boulardii, a probiotic yeast, to adult horses for 14 days significantly decreased the duration of diarrhea in affected animals. [43]

Additionally, Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast appears to support gastrointestinal health and function in horses consuming high starch diets. [44][45]

Studies in other animal species have also demonstrated that Lactobacillus bacteria may prevent the intestinal binding of pathogenic bacteria, such as Salmonella.

This means harmful bacteria is less able to attach to the gut wall. Lactobacillus bacteria may also reduce the toxins produced by these unwanted bacteria. [46][47][48][49]

Overall, supplementing probiotics in horses is considered safe. [41]

Both Mad Barn’s Visceral+ and Optimum Digestive Health gut health supplements contain probiotics.

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Prevention of Non-Infectious Diarrhea

In order to support optimal gastrointestinal health and function for our horses, stability in the microbial gut population must be maintained.

To best prevent non-infectious causes of diarrhea, the following strategies are recommended.

Avoid abrupt dietary changes

Changes in diet should be gradual. This includes a two-week transition between commercial extruded feeds, by gradually introducing greater quantities of the new feed. Exposure to grazing should also be increased gradually.

Do the same when introducing new hays, especially if the horse has a history of digestive upset or diarrhea.

Limit quantities of dietary starch

Horses fed more than 2 grams of starch per kg of bodyweight in one meal may experience adverse gastrointestinal effects. This is equivalent to 1000 grams of starch in a single meal or 2.5 kg (5.5 lb) of plain oats for a 500 kg (1100 lb) horse.

If your horse requires large amounts of commercial feed and dietary starch to support their high energy requirements, it is recommended to divide their feed into several small meals throughout the day as opposed to one or two large meals.

Support gastrointestinal health

Considering adding supplements designed to support digestive health to your horse’s feeding program. There are many effective gut supplements that can help to maintain normal immune function, strengthen the intestinal mucosal barrier, stabilize the gut microflora and support hindgut health.

Specifically, administering probiotics to horses consuming a large quantity of starch may aid in supporting gastrointestinal health and function. [44][45]

Supplements should provide a high CFU count (colony forming units) of at least 5 billion CFU per serving. Many equine supplements provide lower CFU counts and should be avoided as they will likely be ineffective.

Limit or reduce stress whenever possible

Keep feeding and turnout schedule as consistent as possible. Intense training and travel to competitions can increase your horse’s stress.

Changes in social grouping and herd population are another major stressor for horses.

Get your horse’s diet analyzed

A diet evaluation can help you determine if you are overfeeding grain or if there are other ways to support the gastrointestinal health of your horse through their diet.

Submit your horse’s diet for analysis online and our nutritionists can provide a complimentary report.

Conclusion

Diarrhea is often frustrating for both horse owners and veterinarians as the underlying cause may not be obvious and may be difficult to determine.

Dietary management aimed at supporting your horse’s gastrointestinal health and their gut microflora will assist in managing and preventing future cases of non-infectious diarrhea in horses.

Is Your Horse's Diet Missing Anything?

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