Grass Sickness

Grass sickness is a disease which results in damage to parts of the nervous system which control involuntary functions, producing the main symptom of gut paralysis. Due to the nature of damage to the nervous system, the cause is thought to be some sort of toxin; however this has not yet been proven.  

In the case of acute and sub-acute cases, the disease progresses quickly and prognosis is poor. However, there are also chronic cases which can sometimes be nursed back to health. Nutritional support with these cases is essential to counteract the weakness and wastage of the body which often occurs with grass sickness.

Feeding Limitations  

There are numerous factors which can limit the quality and type of food ingested by a horse with grass sickness: 

  • Poor appetite
  • Depression
  • Difficulty/discomfort in swallowing (dysphagia)
  • Colic
  • Pain associated with oesophageal and gastric ulceration 
  • Increased prevalence of choke (meaning that hay/haylage may need to be avoided)

Ideally we would recommend feeding a high energy/calorie, high protein feed that is palatable and easy to swallow. Feeds should be small and and provided often, spread throughout the day where possible.  Realistically, the selection of food will be dictated by the individual horse’s preference rather than nutritional requirements and unfortunately, with the nature of the disease this preference can change regularly. It is suggested that few affected horses eat well for more than 4 days in a row making feeding a real challenge.

Stimulating Appetite

Providing a ‘buffet style’ selection of feeds can be useful initially to establish preferences and where possible this should also include current feed(s). Providing feeds with varying consistencies can help to determine preferences although due to the difficulty in swallowing that can be present in affected horses, most tend to prefer a ‘soup’ type consistency. 

Always try to ensure that the feed is provided in a place where it is easy and comfortable for the horse to eat. Hand feeding from a bucket initially may help to encourage eating as well as feeding within the sight of another horse that is eating.  

Warm feeds and adding ‘tempts’ or succulents to a feed to improve palatability, such as: pureed apples or carrots; apple juice; fenugreek; fennel; aniseeds; mint; or cinnamon may also be worth trying.

Adding Calories

Vegetable oil can be fed to increase calorie intake in a concentrated form with soya and corn oil tending to be the most palatable. As oil can be unpalatable when provided in large quantities, it may be be worth considering a high oil feed as an alternative. Baileys Outshine is a high oil supplement that is fed by the mug full which helps to boost calorie intake without increasing feed volume significantly. 

Essential Nutrients

Balancers can be an ideal way of ensuring a balanced diet is maintained when the horse is unlikely to be consuming the full recommended quantity of a mix or cube. They provide essential vitamins, minerals and quality protein in a concentrated pellet which is fed by the mugful. Baileys Stud Balancer and Performance Balancer are recommended as they provide higher concentrations of these essential nutrients.

Digestive Support

Digestive enhancers should be considered to help support the digestive system which is under considerable pressure for affected horses. Due to the nature of grass sickness a combined approach using both pro and prebiotics may be considered. 

Probiotics contain live bacteria help to repopulate the hindgut with beneficial species whilst prebiotics, like Baileys Digest Plus, help to encourage the proliferation of existing useful bacteria. Probiotics are best fed short term after any event which has disturbed the hindgut’s bacterial population alongside prebiotics which can then be fed for longer periods of time.

Vital Fibre

As affected horses rarely eat sufficient hay/haylage, particularly if they are dysphagic, they may benefit from regular short periods of hand grazing or the provision of freshly picked grass.  In addition to this, Speedi-Beet or Fibre-Beet could be used as a partial forgae replacement that is both palatable and easy to manage. Remember, whenever possible it is recommended to remove any feed provided after two hours, especially handpicked grass which can ferment. 

Every horse suffering from grass sickness can have different preferences so experimentation is key!

Stimulate Appetite

  • Feed in a comfortable environment
  • Add treats or succulents
  • Provide a ‘buffet’ selection of feeds
  • Try different consistencies of feed
  • Hand feed from a bucket
  • Warm feeds up
  • Feed in sight of an eating horse

Feeding Advice

  • Use oil or high oil feeds as a concentrated source of calories
  • Provide essential nutrients using a balancer
  • Consider using probiotics and  prebiotics
  • Graze in hand, pick fresh grass or soaked fibre feed as partial forage replacers
  • Feed little and often
  • Experimentation is key

If you would like to speak to one of our Nutrition team about your horse, or samples, please call us on 01371 850 247 (option 2) or