Horse Health Facts: Pica

Does your horse eat things he shouldn’t?

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And no, I’m not talking about the horse that swallows the packet in an attempt to eat all the treats (you know I’m referring to you, BFG!) I’m talking weird things, like wood, dirt, clothing or even manure.

This particular behaviour is referred to as pica, which means regularly consuming products of non-nutritional value. It can be caused due to a lack in a particular nutrient, parasites, boredom, loneliness or learnt behaviour.

Unusual material in manure may be evidence of pica

Unusual material in manure may be evidence of pica

Coprophagia, the ingestion of manure, is probably the most off-putting of all forms of pica. It is most commonly seen in foals and thought to be a way of loading the foal’s gastro-intestinal tract with the micro-organisms it requires to start populating its own hind gut. In mature horses, coprophagia is more commonly linked to either a protein deficiency or starvation of quality roughage.

A horse that purposefully eats mud or dirt was once thought to be deficient in minerals such as potassium, phosphorus or salt, although domestic horses on well balanced diets still seem to do this on occasion. It is generally harmless unless it is sand, which can lead to colic. Feed these horses off the ground and ensure they are not turned out in sandy paddocks.

The ingestion of wood, including stable shavings, is generally an indication of either boredom or a lack of roughage.

Attempting to eat and eating other materials, such as raiding bins, sheds etc, may be due to a learned response. If in the past the horse has ended up with a pleasant reward for the raid (i.e. head in bin, found apple core - yum!), he is likely to seek it out again. Relocating the objectional material may be your only recourse to rectifying this behaviour.

If your horse has a well-balanced diet and is on a good parasite control program (including faecal worm tests), sometimes exercise or companionship can eliminate the symptoms of pica. If you are uncertain, or believe the ingested material may cause harm to your horse, contact your veterinarian.

Sarah Gallagher Equestrian Movement