Why is my horse biting at its side?

Veterinarians are often asked questions ranging a wide breadth of topics centering on horse health and performance. A common query we often encounter on our daily drive-about is often centered on horses who bite or itch, especially at their sides. Why is this?

There are multiple reasons for why a horse will want to bite at their sides or chest – some medical and some behavioral. Medical reasons include things like colic episodes, gastric ulcers, allergies, and fly irritation. Behavioral reasons can include anything from boredom to psychological self-mutilation! So how do we figure out which one to pursue?

We normally start all of our appointments with a full veterinary examination, as we can get a lot of information by going through a systemic overview of each body system. Often, in horses plagued with allergic problems, we will find problems affecting the skin such as lumps, bumps, crusting or hives. Allergies can also present themselves with abnormal breathing or lung sounds along with biting behaviors.

We will also ask lots of questions about your horse’s daily regimen. Did he come into contact with a new blanket or detergent? Did you recently change feeds? We want to know chronicity (how long it has been going on), time of year, and other symptoms or signs specific to your horse’s problem – you know your horse best! For example, allergies are often a chronic problem, so it is helpful in our rule-out process to figure out how long or how bothersome these problems have been. Treatment for chronic allergic problems often involves a course of steroids to calm inflammation, followed by dietary or habitat changes, or even allergy testing to eliminate more specific causes.

These questions can also help us rule out more serious causes of biting at the sides, like colic. Horses will often try to target the area of the pain (the GI system) by looking or nipping at their sides. This is usually accompanied by other signs of colic, such as stretching out, pawing, getting up and down, and lethargic behavior. Colicky horses usually have a sudden onset of symptoms, and their behavior will usually continue or get worse until urgent veterinary treatment is started.

Other less common reasons include gastric ulcers and behavior problems. Gastric ulcers can present in many different ways, ranging from mild colic, to biting when being saddled, to “off” behavior. Behavior problems, like boredom, can also be more challenging to treat. Sometimes simple changes (adding more feedings, adding turnout, providing a buddy) can make a big difference! Horses at the opposite end of the spectrum can present with full neurotic episodes causing self-harm, coined “self-mutilation”. These can be scary situations and it is important to rule out dangerous causes such as rabies or encephalitis.

In summary, a thorough veterinary exam can help you pinpoint the cause of your horse’s problem and decide what kind of urgency is necessary. We are just a phone call away!

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