Depraved Appetite

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Depraved appetite, or pica, is revealed through seemingly peculiar licking, chewing, and ingesting of non-foods such as rocks, wood, bark, dirt, hair from the tail or mane, feces, bones, or other objects in the horse's environment. This behavior can lead to serious and fatal digestive complications and should not be taken lightly.


  • Licking foreign objects such as wood and stones
  • Eating soil or bark
  • Chewing the mane or tail
  • Ingesting feces
  • Searching nooks and crannies for something strange or different to chew on


Depraved appetite, also known as pica, has several possible causes. Among them are deficiencies in salt and trace minerals, inadequate amounts of fiber in the diet, and a lack of opportunity to engage in a satisfying amount of chewing. The condition may also develop due to underlying health problems or boredom.

Many horse owners and veterinarians believe that when a horse has deficiency in salt and essential trace elements, this deprivation may result in depraved appetite symptoms. Small amounts of copper, cobalt, zinc, iodine, iron, manganese, and selenium are universally recognized as being essential in a horse's diet and without these minerals, a horse may turn to ingesting dirt and other substances to satisfy its appetite.

Expression of pica behavior sometimes indicates an underlying health problem. Horses with severe salt or other mineral deficiencies brought on by low salt/mineral intake and profuse sweating become exhausted and performance declines markedly. If not remedied, the horse can become seriously ill and its immune system may be compromised.

Extended periods of confinement in stables or corrals, coupled with little or no forage rich in fiber, may lead to wood chewing which may be evidence of a depraved appetite.

Some horses are naturally more inquisitive than others and may lick or ingest foreign objects as another way of satisfying curiosity or relieving boredom. Although this ingestion and eventual excretion may not always create problems for the horse, foreign objects may cause impaction or precipitate formation of a mass capable of occluding the colon of the horse.

Mane and tale chewing often begins as a foal matures and may be caused by boredom or playfulness. Too much ingestion of hair can cause digestive problems.

Coprophagy, or the ingestion of feces, by foals may be a normal developmental activity, as the foal naturally establishes a microbial population in the intestinal tract by this behavior. The primary concern with foals that consume feces from their dams is parasite infestation.


Making sure that the horse's diet contains all the necessary nutrients for good health appears to be the most important part of prevention. Developing a good diet that furnishes the proper amounts of salt and trace elements will keep the horse from developing cravings that may drive it to lick, chew, and ingest non-food items in the environment.

Being aware of a horse's need to chew and providing for a variety of chewing experiences, such as offering items like carrots and long-stemmed foliage, will help satisfy the horse's impulses.

If a foal or horse begins chewing on the tail or mane, cayenne pepper or commercially-available compounds with foul-tasting ingredients may be applied to ward off bored or playful pasture mates and prevent this bad habit.

If an adult horse begins indulging in coprophagy, access to forage and other diversions may put a stop to the behavior.


Treatment is very similar to prevention. Working with a veterinarian who has a background in equine nutrition and can give advice about properly increasing the intake of salt and trace minerals in the horse's diet might be necessary. .

In addition, providing plenty of opportunities for effective foraging and chewing, along with a varied healthy diet with plenty of roughage, usually helps relieve both the nutrition and boredom factors. .

Managing the stable and pasture in a way that allows horses the opportunity to socialize with other horses should provide the makings for good physical health and enough diversions to keep the horse from becoming bored and turning to depraved appetite behaviors

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EquiMed staff writers team up to provide articles that require periodic updates based on evolving methods of equine healthcare. Compendia articles, core healthcare topics and more are written and updated as a group effort. Our review process includes an important veterinarian review, helping to assure the content is consistent with the latest understanding from a medical professional.