Thesis: Principles of Equine Nutrition Basic Nutrients Too Much or Too Little Salt

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¶ … Equine Nutrition -- Review of the Basic Nutrients -- Too Much or Too Little: Salt

Salt deficiency and excess: Why the right balance of salt is so critical for equine health

Salt is an essential nutrient for both horses and humans. What is commonly referred to as salt (such as table salt) actually consists of the chemical bond of the elements sodium and chloride (NaCl). However, while the horse's body needs salt to live and to thrive, its body cannot manufacture salt. Salt must be provided by the horses' natural diet, in feed or as a supplement. Diets deficient in salt because of hot weather and hard training can cause some horses' organs to fail, resulting in permanent damage and death. While this is rare, a salt-deficient horse may have less energy and coordination, and its training and performance will be impeded ("FAQ," Supplements, 2010).

Both of the components of NaCl are electrolytes. According to the Merck Veterinary Manual, "Electrolytes are electrically charged particles called ions. These ions can be lost through sweat. They are necessary for cellular metabolism, a balanced cellular system and the production of energy using calories. Sodium helps maintain hydration and is important to muscle contraction and nerves," and chloride "has a negative charge while sodium has a positive charge. The balance between the two helps maintain healthy blood cells."

Electrolytes such sodium, chloride, potassium, calcium, magnesium and phosphate are needed in a horses' diet "in relatively large amounts. Other electrolytes include selenium, copper, zinc, manganese, iron and cobalt. These are needed in much smaller amounts. The different electrolytes have many different functions in the body. Potassium and sodium are very important in the nervous system, whilst calcium and phosphate are integral parts of the skeleton" ("FAQ," Supplements, 2010). All must exist in a state of balance for optimal functioning of the animal.

Anatomy (physiology) of the affected area(s) of the animal (metabolism and effect)

Even a horse at rest, of average size (approximately 1100-pounds), needs about two ounces of salt per day, and up to four to five ounces of salt may be needed on hot days or if the horse is being worked hard ("Horses and salt," University of Wisconsin, 2010). Salt concentration may be listed on the animal's feed, along with other minerals necessary to the animal's well being, but most commercial horse feeds are only designed to meet the needs of average horses, under average working conditions. They "have a small amount of salt added, usually about 0.5 to 1.0%," also because usually horses do not like to eat grain that tastes very salty ("Don't forget the salt," CFC, 2006). Added salt can interfere with absorption of other nutrients in feed and so manufacturers have an additional incentive to keep the amount of salt low in their products ("FAQ," Supplements, 2010).

"All animals need inorganic elements called minerals to remain healthy and productive. Some vitamins, hormones and amino acids require minerals as essential components. Usually the minerals that are required in larger amounts will be listed as a percentage on a horse's diet" ("A pinch of salt," Horse and Rider, 2001). Natural feed or pasture grass contains very little salt. In their natural environment, horses will not exert themselves to the degree that they need extra supplementation. However, under regular riding and training, horses will sweat and likely need supplementation, especially if they are pasture-kept. Horses will "consume loose salt or block salt to meet their salt requirement. Consequently, all horses should be provided free access to a source of salt. Since horses will [instinctively] consume salt to meet their requirement, the only way to develop a salt deficiency is if the horse does not have free access to salt" ("Don't forget the salt," CFC, 2006).

Clinical signs that make the problem recognizable

Unlike other mineral deficiencies, a salt deficiency can be quite noticeable in a horse's behavior and appearance. A horse with a chronic salt deficiency, because of an improper diet or absorption problems will manifest decreased appetite and water intake "and a tendency to chew on objects that are salty such as sweaty tack, tools" and even people ("A pinch of salt," Horse and Rider, 2001). When worked 'hard,' horses deprived of salt tire easily, sweat little (if at all) and may have muscle spasms or cramping. "Hemoconcentration and acidosis may be expected. Anorexia [total loss of appetite] and pica [eating non-food substances such as tree bark] may be evident in chronic deprivation, although these are not specific signs of salt deficiency," and may be linked to other conditions. Conversely, horses that are not sodium deficient may also exhibit these symptoms. More specific signs can be seen "in lactating mares, [when] milk production seriously declines. Polyuria and polydipsia secondary to renal medullary washout may be seen in prolonged deficits" of salt ("Mineral deficiency," Merck Veterinary Manual, 2010).

Eating too much salt is far rarer than not having enough salt. However, given that the amount of salt the horse requires is a delicate balance of temperature, level of exertion, weight, and amount consumed through a variety of sources, it is important to be mindful of the signs of excessive salt consumption if the horse is being supplemented. Excessive consumption may include excessive thirst, such as more than three buckets a day in cold weather, and excessive urination ("FAQ," Supplements, 2010).

Cause(s)/etiology that bring about the condition (include measures useful in preventing the problem)

Horses are most likely to develop signs of salt (NaCl) deficiency when worked hard in hot weather. Often "sweat and urinary losses are appreciable" even before the signs of dehydration are manifest ("Mineral deficiency," Merck Veterinary Manual, 2010). Salt licks are commonly used for cattle and horses to prevent sodium deficiencies, and are available at most feed stores, although some experts feel they are not ideal for horses. Most commercial licks state that they provide up to 95% of a horse's salt needs but while "cattle have rough tongues," horses may find using the licks uncomfortable and may "bite and destroy the blocks. They are trying to get the needed salt" but do not want to hurt their sensitive tongues ("Horses and salt," University of Wisconsin, 2010). Although it is not a common problem, horses that are bored may over-lick or eat the blocks as a coping mechanism, much like cribbing. Furthermore, it is impossible to tell how much salt a horse is getting from a block. Even if the block is examined for activity, brands vary in terms of how much actual salt is incorporated into the block along with other minerals.

Loose white granulated salt, often offered in local feed stores in 50-pound bags is another, more economical option and easier to monitor in terms of the animal's consumption. Regardless, there is little downside providing free access to this type of salt, especially because loose salt cannot be used as a boredom 'toy.' Because this salt is more "self-limiting" when owners include it in feed or offer it freely "horses already well supplemented will take less of the free choice salt, while other horses on a more basic ration will take more salt and so receive the essential minerals and trace elements for their daily needs" ("Trace elements and salt licks," 2010).

The type of salt that is offered does not have to be 'fancy' salt. In fact the popular red trace mineral salt, which has added zinc, iron, manganese, copper, cobalt and iodine, is not a 'complete' source of all minerals that horses require "and the ratios used do not contribute to an optimum balance for horses. In spite of this, some people still consider trace mineral salt as some kind of 'insurance' against a mineral deficiency. All the macro minerals, notably calcium and phosphorous, are missing from trace mineral salt. [And] trace… [END OF PREVIEW]

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