Bloated Horse (Excessive Gas) – Symptoms, Prevention and Probiotics

Jul 19, 2018

Bloating is a disorder of the digestive system, usually related to colic. A bloated horse’s stomach or intestines are too full – usually of gas – which causes them to distend. The problem is painful and usually a symptom of deeper issues with the digestive system, and needs to be addressed.

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What is Bloat?

Simply put, bloat is when your horse’s digestive system has too much gas inside it. This can occur in the stomach or further along in the small intestine or colon. The gas causes pressure to build up inside these digestive organs, which is extremely painful for the horse and can result in damage to the walls of the stomach or intestines in severe cases. More importantly, bloat is an indicator that something is very wrong in your horse’s gut.

Causes of Bloat

Bloat is usually caused by one of two issues: the production of too much gas, or a blockage somewhere in the digestive system. When the horse’s system produces too much gas, he’s not always capable of ridding himself of it, especially considering that the horse is physically incapable of burping.

A far more serious cause of bloat is a blockage in the system. These blockages may be a simple impaction (a wad of food material blocking up the intestine somewhere) or as severe as a torsion (a twisted bowel). When even gas can’t pass through the blockage, it will build up, causing the horse to bloat.

Signs of Bloat in Horses

Bloat is obviously visible as a distension in your horse’s flank area. The horse’s belly will appear bigger than normal, perhaps even bulging out behind the ribs. It’s important to note that a hay or worm belly – intestines distended with digesting food or worms, alongside weak abdominal muscles – looks very different from true bloat. Where a hay belly hangs low-slung like a pregnant mare’s, bloat will show up higher up on the flank area, directly behind the horse’s last rib and between the last rib and point of hip.

The discomfort caused by gas distending the gut will often lead to mild colic symptoms. Bloat caused by a simple overproduction of gas will generally lead to mild symptoms; however, where an impaction or torsion is also present, the symptoms can be severe. Uncomplicated bloat will never show severe colic symptoms. If your horse’s vital signs are abnormal (fever with fast pulse and breathing), his mucus membranes are an unusual colour (usually pale or brick red), or he is showing signs of extreme abdominal pain (throwing himself violently to the ground, sweating uncontrollably), suspect the worst.

The milder colic signs that can be expected alongside simple bloat include: restlessness, loss of appetite, shifting the weight repeatedly from one hindleg to the other, nipping or kicking at the belly as if bothered by flies, lying down and getting up repeatedly, lying down more than usual, and looking around at the belly. Your horse’s gut sounds will also change. While normal gut sounds are bubbly and rumbling, you may hear a strange gurgling noise – similar to the sound a tap makes when you turn it open, but there’s no water.

Prevention and Treatment

While bloat may occasionally happen as a result of an unusually rich batch of hay or a change in feeding, when bloat occurs regularly, steps must be taken to manage it. Not only is bloat itself uncomfortable and dangerous for your horse – a distended bowel twists more easily, causing a torsion, which requires surgery to fix and even then is often fatal – but where excessive gas is being produced, it’s a sure sign that your horse’s gut isn’t functioning optimally.

But how is gas produced in the horse’s gut? Gas is usually produced mostly in the horse’s colon – his large intestine. The colon digests food mostly by using intestinal microflora: a colony of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa that act on semi-digested food to break it down, releasing essential substances like amino acids, vitamins, and even energy. Unlike humans, horses are able to digest cellulose, a fibrous substance found in grass and other plants. They break cellulose down into carbohydrates, which are used for energy. This is how horses survive so well on a hay-only diet.

For this reason, horses are extremely dependent on the good bacteria in their guts, and they have a large amount of these. However, where there’s a problem with these bacteria – they get overwhelmed by bad bacteria, their numbers are depleted for some reason, or they are digesting the wrong food – they can go a little overboard. This causes them to produce huge amounts of gas. And this, in turn, causes bloat.

Preventing bloat, then, is directly linked to the good bacteria in the horse’s gut. Where the good bacteria are kept healthy, bloat is significantly less likely to occur. This is done by feeding the horse probiotics.

There are many different types of probiotics on the market, and which type you use will be dependent on your individual situation. The simplest types of probiotics contain a few strains of good microorganisms, which are activated once they reach the horse’s gut. These are generally designed for daily feeding, mixed in with the horse’s grain ration, like Probios Vets Plus Feed Granule for Horses. Other supplements contain more than just probiotics. For example, Assure Guard Equine Gastric Health Supplement contains other substances to boost the digestive system, such as zinc and psyllium.

Probios VETS PLUS Feed Granule for Horses

Probios Vets Plus Feed Granule for Horses

Not all probiotic supplements have to be fed every day, however. Unless your horse has continual problems with his digestive system, continually feeding a probiotic is probably just a waste of money. All horses’ systems can be put under strain, though. Times of stress, antibiotics, deworming, or colic caused by other factors all deplete the stores of good bacteria. When this happens, some supplements are specially designed to be used in the short term, like Stable Nutrition Probiotic Boost for Horses. And if your horse is a picky eater and doesn’t enjoy the taste of the supplement in his food, Advita Paste for Horses Probiotic Nutritional Supplement can be given in a handy tube of paste.

Stable Nutrition PROBIOTIC BOOST for HorsesStable Nutrition Probiotic Boost for Horses

Conclusion

The suggestions given above are meant for the prevention and treatment of mild bloat caused by an imbalance of the intestinal microflora, and should only be applied under the guidance of a good vet. Anytime your horse shows symptoms of severe colic alongside bloating, this should be treated as a medical emergency, and the vet should see the horse as soon as possible. For mild bloating, though, a good probiotic might be just what your horse needs to feel himself again.

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