Unusual Eating Behavior – Culprit Could be Salt Deficiency

Salt Block for HorsesUnusual eating behavior ( sometimes referred to as pica) can be caused by a number of factors and may cause the horse to eat manure, eat dirt, eat bark off trees, chew on board fences, chew on stable mate’s mane & tail or chew on tool handles or leather equipment.

I usually suggest going thru the following check list for the most common causes of unusual eating behavior:

  1. Lack of salt. Lack of salt can trigger a number of unusual eating behaviors (eating manure, chewing bark on trees, eating dirt, chewing on objects, chewing on tool handles etc.) Recommendation is to offer loose salt free choice as horses will consume more readily than block salt, particularly in cold weather. Block salt is better than not offering any salt source. Maintenance horses require 1-2 ounces of salt per day.  This may increase to 4-6 ounces per head per day in hot humid conditions or with added exercise.  Commercial feeds may contain 0.5% salt.  Horses may still benefit from salt being offered free choice along with access to fresh, clean water.
  2. Fiber intake in the diet might be inadequate. If a horse does not feel full, it will look for other things to eat. Make sure there is adequate long stem roughage available.  Fences, trees, manes and tails may suffer if there is not sufficient roughage!
  3. Phosphorus deficiency. Horses have quite limited “nutritional wisdom”, but phosphorus deficiency may trigger unusual eating behavior, including eating manure or dirt. Offering a free choice calcium, phosphorus and salt mineral may be useful.  In the wild, animals frequently consume bones or shed antlers to get minerals.
  4. Protein deficiency. Again, horses have limited “nutritional wisdom”, but inadequate protein or poor quality protein may trigger some of the unusual eating behaviors. Evaluating the forage and the overall feeding program is useful.
  5. Ulcers. Horses that have ulcers will sometimes eat dirt or manure as well as chew on other objects. The saliva produced when chewing is believed to have a buffering effect.

I always start by offering loose salt free choice and making certain that fiber intake is adequate. If that does not remedy the problem, I will then go to offering a good mineral product (calcium, phosphorus, salt combination, perhaps with some trace minerals) and perhaps a full ration evaluation.  Other behaviors may help decide if ulcer assessment is needed.

Unusual behavior may be the horse’s way of trying to tell us something!

9 Replies to “Unusual Eating Behavior – Culprit Could be Salt Deficiency”

    1. Hi Rick,
      Thank you for your question. Maybe you can help by answering a few questions first. At what rate are your feeding your horse per day? Do you follow the guidelines provided on your feed bag? If the horse is overconsuming on the feed – that can also open the door to other problems including obesity, colic and laminitis, just to name a few. But if you are staying within the recommended guidelines and still not seeing much hay consumption, it might have something to do with the quality and palatability of the hay. Take a look at a couple of our articles as well to possibly help troubleshoot:
      http://www.horsefeedblog.com/2013/05/following-feeding-recommendations/
      http://www.horsefeedblog.com/2014/10/do-you-know-the-feeding-rate-for-your-horse-feed/

      Best of luck!

  1. My horse does not use a salt block. I sprinkle salt on his feed but I am not really sure how much to give him. Can you tell me a measurement I can use? Or, how do you offer it free choice?

    Thank you,

    1. Hi Rena,
      Thank you for your question. Generally, when it comes to loose salt, a good option is to have the salt available at free choice either in the stall or covered in a mineral feeder. Salt intake from loose salt has been observed to be higher than from salt blocks due to the ease of consumption. When purchasing loose salt, ensure that you are selecting salt that is intended for animal consumption (NaCl, iodized table salt, plain white salt), and not a mineral salt blend (red salt), or salt that is intended for de-icing. Commercial feeds normally contain 0.5-1.0% salt, so horses on this type of feed will typically consume less free choice salt than horses not receiving salt in their feed. They may still benefit from having loose salt available free choice.

      Best of luck!

  2. Hello. can you suggest a good calcium, phosphorus and salt combination product to to give to a horse that has and unusual eating behaviour.

    Thank Lisa

    1. Hi Lisa,
      Thank you for your question. Mineral recommendation will need to be based on forage.

      If feeding primarily grass hay, I would recommend something like a 12% calcium, 6% phosphorus, 12% salt mineral product. If feeding alfalfa, I normally go with a 12-12-12 mineral, sight unseen. These are commonly available at most feed stores.

      Best of luck!
      Roy J.

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