Promoting Weight Gain After Illness

What’s the best way to help a gelding recovering from illness gain back the weight he lost?

Q My 14-year-old Thoroughbred gelding was quite ill for three weeks with a virus my vets never could identify despite many tests. He was on antibiotics for two weeks and lost a lot of weight throughout the ordeal. Now, a month and a half past the worst of it, he’s still thin. He gets generous servings of alfalfa hay twice a day; I’ve also been giving him probiotics. What else can I do to encourage weight gain?


A We’re providing recommendations to help your gelding gain weight after his illness, but please consult with your veterinarian prior to instituting any nutritional changes to confirm that your horse is indeed recovered from the infection. If he’s still suffering residual effects, he’ll require further treatment in addition to nutritional management.

It’s important to remember that slow weight gain is actually optimum. The changes we’re recommending may take one to two months to result in the desired weight gain for your gelding, which would be ideal. (Remember to make all feed changes gradually.)

Because your horse is eating hay, introduce a senior feed that doesn’t have to be the complete diet (that is, it can be fed along with hay). Choose one that’s beet-pulp based, with 8 to 10 percent crude fat, and feed it per the manufacturer’s guidelines so that no other vitamins or minerals are required. Alternatively, feed soaked beet pulp (see box) and a high-protein ration balancer according to the directions on the label.

Unless indicated by your veterinarian, reduce the alfalfa to no more than 50 percent of the forage and replace with an equal or greater amount of grass hay (free-choice would be ideal). While infection does increase your horse’s protein requirement, excessively high protein intakes, such as those provided by 100-percent alfalfa hay, are metabolically demanding. If fed properly, the senior feed recommended previously, along with the reduced alfalfa and added grass hay, will provide the necessary essential amino acids your horse needs to rebuild any lost muscle mass.

There’s currently no strong scientific evidence to support or refute the use of probiotics for weight gain in horses, but you should feed a supplement with a good source of omega-3 fatty acid to help support a healthy inflammatory response. Also, if you’re not already doing so, consider blanketing your gelding against the cold as this will help conserve calories.

Summit Equine Nutrition, LLC
University of California, Davis
Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital

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