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  • Equine Wellness

Diagnosing Food Sensitivity in Horses

Food sensitivity in horses can lead to all kinds of gut discomfort, disease, and any number of health issues. Obviously, none of this makes for an easy life, and diagnosis of sensitivities and intolerances in horses is key to their overall health and well-being.

Over the last decade or two, gut health in both humans and companion animals has become something of a hot topic. And with good reason: the trillions of microbes (bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and viruses) that call your gut home do far more than just ensure digestive ease and belly comfort. A balanced microbiome plays a crucial role in overall health and longevity.

This is as true for humans as it is for horses.

The Role of Food in Horse Gut Health

Knowing this, many have turned to foods, supplements, and synbiotics (pre-and pro-biotics) to help promote gastrointestinal (GI) health in their equine companions. As Hippocrates said a long time ago, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”

Horses have minimal capacity for digestion of foods in the stomach and small intestine. For them, adequate sources of fiber are critical to permit fermentation of foods that occur primarily beyond the small intestine in order to achieve the correct dietary balance.

Moreover, a pathogenic role of gluten-intolerance has been suggested in some cases of equine inflammatory small bowel disease. Horses suffering from gluten-related GI inflammation can be asymptomatic or can display any of the following GI tract or asthmatic issues:

  • loose stools

  • ulcers

  • skin issues – especially hives and pruritus (itching)

  • tension-fatigue

  • malaise

  • dullness

We can only imagine how much discomfort a horse suffering from any of these must feel. This, coupled with the fact that food reactivity has also proven to be non-seasonal and poorly responsive to steroids, means that there is an ever-increasing need for commercial availability of gluten-free and organic foods for horses.

Of course, gluten intolerance is not the only food sensitivity that can impact horse health.

The Link Between Diet and Disease

Diet can be a serious risk factor for a number of diseases, as common dietary ingredients act on the animal genome directly and indirectly to alter gene expression and structure. Further, certain diet-regulated genes play a role in onset, incidence, progression, and/or severity of chronic diseases.

Dietary intervention based on the animal’s nutritional requirement and status along with their genotype can thus be used to prevent, mitigate, or even cure chronic disease.

This does beg the question, however: which foods can horses tolerate well, and which should be avoided? The answer lies in testing.

Testing for Food Sensitivity in Horses

While true food allergy in animals like horses is a rare, food sensitivity and intolerance is increasingly common.

The number of genes within the microbes of the microbiome is 200 times the number present in the mammalian genome. These organisms play a critical part not only in sustaining gut health, but also in recognizing and monitoring any harmful effects that appear. Adverse food reactions can be:

  • immunological – allergies and hypersensitivities, mediated by immunoglobulin E, IgE, and

  • non-immunological – food intolerance mediated by immunoglobulins IgA and IgM.

Published studies have shown that the most reliable way to identify food sensitivities in healthy equines is through the latter – IgA or IgM antibodies to foods in saliva. These two have been shown to commonly appear before diagnosis of: inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) or “leaky gut syndrome”, as well as bodily reactions like hives, rashes, and wheals.

Saliva testing can thus reveal the latent or pre-clinical form of food sensitivity and intolerance.

This is where a tool like Nutriscan® – a patented saliva-based diagnostic test developed in our laboratory comes into play. A simple saliva test, Nutriscan® works to identify a primary panel of 22 highly purified food antigens that are reactive to these two antibodies (IgA and IgM) in horses.

Once results are received and caregivers know which foods to avoid, they can then consult with their veterinarian or animal nutritionist to put the horse on the right diet.

Much like humans, feeding horses the right food for each individual’s unique biological make up is key to their daily comfort and overall health. That task, while not exactly easy, is increasingly manageable thanks to improved testing and diagnostic tools.


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