Nutrition of Starved Horses

February 20, 2006 (published)

Today I am going to talk about refeeding of horses that are in poor condition or have been starved. Although I know this may not be a common problem, you may find yourself in a situation where you are required to take care of a horse that has been underfed or even starved. This occurs when horses are abandoned or confiscated by animal control. Taking care of these horses may seem simple. However, the method of feeding is important. The concern is that if horses are fed too much after a period of starvation, they can develop what is called refeeding syndrome. This syndrome occurs because after carbohydrates are fed, insulin is released and causes some major metabolic changes, including electrolyte and mineral abnormalities. The lack of energy reserves can lead to organ dysfunction and cell death. Red blood cells are particularly susceptible to this damage and their destruction prevents oxygen from getting to the tissues. In the end, cardiac and respiratory failures lead to death.

To prevent this problem, it is recommended to feed only small amounts of grass hay every 2 hours along with water and electrolytes. Gradually, amount of hay may be increased up to 8 to 10 pounds a day. Alfalfa is not recommended initially because of the high protein concentration. All horses should be initially examined by a veterinarian to determine if they are salvageable as some may be suffering and may require euthanasia. A vet can run some blood work to determine the horse's overall health and check a fecal sample for parasites. If you have to rehabilitate a starved horse, call your vet for treatment recommendations

VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email

Information and opinions expressed in letters to the editor are those of the author and are independent of the VIN News Service. Letters may be edited for style. We do not verify their content for accuracy.