Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The worm belly

It seems that time after time on FHOTD, I find, that whenever we see a belly like this (above), it's proclaimed as a "worm belly" - without question. Well there are other factors to a belly like this, and it does not always involve worms. You cannot tell from a simple photo why a horse has a belly such as the one shown above.

Several years ago, my 4yo Warmblood x kept dropping weight, despite all my efforts at getting him extra hay whenever I could, deworming regularly, etc. The owners of the place where I boarded wanted me to start graining him, but I knew that grain wasn't the answer (I'll do a blog on feeds in the near future, including why concentrates are not the best method of weight gain). I ran fecal samples on him to see if worms were the problem. They weren't. Finally I took him to the vet to have his teeth floated, who found his teeth, while needing to be done, were not the cause of his weight loss. He was quite underweight by this time yet had this hay belly - despite exercise. The vet pointed out the likely reason - in our case, for the hay belly. Poor quality hay. When I checked out the hay that was being fed to my horse (and the other 100 or so on the property), it was decent, but certainly not the high quality it used to be (they'd switched to a new hay source). I couldn't get him on better quality hay so eventually I moved him to a place that provided better quality hay, in a roundbale format. He gained weight and the hay belly disappeared. So, what are some possible reasons for a droopy belly?
1. Worms. A horse not on a regular deworming schedule, that is feeding off of short, overgrazed grass in an over-stocked pasture, can pick up worms easily. A worming schedule should depend on the grazing in the area, the amount of space, the number of horses, and the season; it can range from once every 6 months to once every 2 months. Worms will rob your horse of essential nutrients, resulting in the droopy belly you see. You'll also likely see a rubbed-out tail and/or mane, a listless appearance, dull coat, and/or worms in the manure (the last three are in more severe cases). Have a fecal test done (they're cheap!) by your vet if you think worms could be the problem. Deworm your horse at the same time as all the others in his pasture/paddock. Not doing so is essentially the same as not deworming him at all.
2. Poor quality hay. Even hay that is cut past maturity may not have the essential nutrients your horse requires (which depends on breed, age, activity level, etc). Horse hay, especially for young and old horses or breeds that have higher metabolisms (such as Thoroughbreds), needs to be the highest quality possible. Green, fresh-smelling, and non-dusty. Sometimes it is essential to supplement with beet pulp, alfalfa cubes, etc - foods high in digestibility, but the best way is to increase the quality of hay (and quantity of quality hay) first. It depends on a horse's individual need. Here's an article on determining hay quality. 10 tips for choosing hay. Do a hay analysis to be sure of the nutrient content in your hay.
3. Lack of muscling. An under-exercised horse with atrophied topline and abdominal muscles can also have a droopy belly. Once the horse is exercised and develops adequate topline and underline, the belly will tighten up.

Do not simply assume that a droopy belly signifies worms, because that is not always the case. Have an open mind and be open to any and all the possibilities or reasons for a droopy belly, so that you can then treat it effectively. Above all, consult your vet. Remember, you cannot tell the reason for a droopy belly on sight alone. Fecal tests are necessary to rule out worms (unless the signs are very obvious, in a severely-affected case), and hay and exercise should always be evaluated as possible reasons as well.

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