Tuesdays with Tony
So tell me, what’s the deal with you horse people and constantly checking out your horse’s poop? Seriously, horses should just cover that stuff up like cats do. My docs tell me that monitoring a horse’s fecal material daily is actually very important. Apparently they haven’t been telling me, but they check out mine too when they clean my litter box. Humans are so strange! Since I discovered this, I’ve learned that a horse’s poop can tell you a lot about their overall gastrointestinal health, so maybe it’s not so weird. From color to consistency to frequency, all poop matters. Here’s what I found out:
When we think of horse manure we think of nice round, brown poop balls. However, as veterinarians and horse owners, we can see all different colors of manure. From the usual brown to green to red and black and everything in between it has all been seen before. But what do these colors really mean, and when is it time to be concerned? Manure reflects what has been consumed by the horse. There’s something to be said about the saying, you are what you eat. If the majority of your horse’s diet is fresh, green alfalfa, you can bet that when you see a fresh pile of manure from your horse it’s going to be green. If the majority of your horse’s diet is coastal hay you would expect to see light brown manure.
Where we start to worry is if we are seeing odd colors like red or black. Red/orange-tinged manure could be a result of the consumption of red leaves/foliage. Alternatively, it could be the result of a frank bleed in the lower part of the gastrointestinal tract. A bleed in the gastrointestinal tract can be life-threatening and requires immediate veterinary attention. It’s not uncommon to see blood in dog and cat feces, which is commonly caused by a parasitic infestation. When horses have parasites, we don’t see blood in their manure. Blood in horse manure is very concerning and should not be left unattended.
Similarly, black manure can be an indicator of a life-threatening problem for your horse. Black in manure is an indicator of digested blood meaning it has traveled from the upper gastrointestinal tract (including the stomach) through the entire GI and has been digested resulting in black, tarry fecal material called Melena. It can be an indicator of a stomach ulcer that’s actively bleeding, or ulcers in the small intestine, both of which can lead to perforation of the gastrointestinal tract and resulting in a septic, very sick horse.
The consistency of manure can tell us a lot about their overall health. Horses should have formed, moist, shiny fecal balls that form a nice pile when passed. A very common symptom my veterinarians see is diarrhea. Diarrhea in and of itself has multiple different consistencies. There can be normal fecal balls with liquid diarrhea throughout, cow-patty diarrhea, the kind of diarrhea that splatters everywhere, and the liquid kind that paints the stall walls. Whatever kind of diarrhea a horse has, it’s not normal. It’s not always easy to pin-point the cause of the diarrhea and it can take a lot of trial and error to figure out exactly what’s causing it.
One of the most common causes of diarrhea in horses is sand. You’re probably saying to yourself, there is no way my horse has sand, Tony, he lives on lush green pasture year-round and never has access to sand. You would be wrong. Somehow, someway, all horses find a way to consume sand. When they consume enough sand, it causes irritation of the colon as it moves which can result in diarrhea. Sand Clear is a great way to prevent the accumulation of sand, but once a horse has excessive sand in his GI tract the only way to resolve it is to pass a nasogastric tube and administer psyllium and mineral oil for three consecutive days.
Another cause of diarrhea can be bad dentition. Horses who have not had their teeth floated regularly or who have dental issues can have trouble masticating (chewing) their forage, leaving long stems to be digested. Those stems act like fingernails scraping a chalk board, causing inflammation and irritation of the GI tract resulting in diarrhea.
Horses can also develop irritable bowel syndrome. Sometimes it’s impossible to figure out what is causing diarrhea, and for that we use the term irritable bowel syndrome. Furthermore, parasitism can be a cause of diarrhea. Whatever the cause, diarrhea is not a symptom to be taken lightly and always requires the evaluation of your horse’s veterinarian. It can lead to dehydration, severe illness, colic and death. Always consult your veterinarian if your horse develops diarrhea.
You’ve read my blog so you are familiar with colic and what causes colic. But did you know that your horse’s manure can also indicate that a horse may be prone to colic? Hard, dry, small fecal balls are an indication that a horse is not drinking enough water. Recall my blog from a couple weeks ago about leading a horse to water and making it drink: here is the time where that really comes into play. Dehydration is a major component in equine colic.
When a horse doesn’t drink enough, their manure become hard and dry and it makes the likelihood of developing an impaction increase tenfold. If you notice that your horse’s fecal material seems a little more dry than usual or the balls are a little smaller than normal, that’s your first sign that you need to get more water into your horse.
Occasionally the docs will see mucus-covered fecal material. This can look like long stringy worms or even spaghetti woven in and around the fecal balls. Mucus in horse poop means that the manure has been sitting in the gastrointestinal tract for too long because there’s not enough moisture to move it through.
You should know what normal poop looks like for your horse. Pay attention when it changes and know that any change in consistency can be an indication that your horse needs to see your veterinarian.
As a crazy horse person, you probably know your horse’s pooping habits better than you know yourself, which means you know exactly how many piles of manure your horse usually passes in a 24-hour period. Sometimes, if a horse does not pass as much manure as usual it can be something as simple as your horse’s diet has changed and he is not eating as much as usual. Maybe he usually has a pasture block available but that has been consumed and a new one has not been set out yet. However, a decrease in manure production can also indicate that your horse has something more serious going on.
The question to answer is, is manure production decreased because feed intake is decreased or is it decreased because there is something causing the GI tract to move slower? If it’s because of a decrease in feed intake, why isn’t your horse eating as much? Or if it’s because the GI tract is moving slowly, why is that? Knowing your horse’s usual routine, their normal diet and how much they usually drink is essential to noticing if your horse has an issue. It is also essential in knowing if your horse is passing manure more frequently than usual.
You wouldn’t think that a horse passing manure more frequently than usual would indicate a problem, but it certainly can. If, for example, your horse is passing a lot of small little piles of manure, that could indicate that your horse is struggling to pass an entire pile. Frequent, loose piles of manure can indicate that your horse is developing a more serious problem such as colitis. Any change in your horse’s usual routine and manure output is cause for concern. It should be watched carefully, and it’s always a good idea to get your veterinarian involved when you notice a change.
So now you’ve learned, as I recently did, that poop can tell you a lot about your horse’s overall health. It can help you catch problems that might be brewing before they become a big issue. Keep keeping an eye on the poop, and don’t hesitate to call my docs if you have a question about it. And no, it’s not weird to have pictures of horse poop in your phone to show other people. Horse people do it all the time. Right?
Until next week,
P.S. If you want to learn more about runny poop, the humans have a podcast that covers all kinds of stuff about diarrhea that you never realized you wanted to know. You can find it over on the Podcast Page. And honestly, if you don’t listen to Straight from the Horse Doctor’s Mouth every two weeks, you’re missing out on a TON of great horse knowledge. I’m just saying.
Tuesdays with Tony is the official blog of Tony the Clinic Cat at Springhill Equine Veterinary Clinic in Newberry, Florida. If you liked this blog, please subscribe below, and share it with your friends on social media! For more information, please call us at (352) 472-1620, visit our website at SpringhillEquine.com, or follow us on Facebook!