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Ask the Vet: Sugary Horse Treats

Is it ever okay to give horses treats that include candy or other sugary ingredients?

September 20, 2017

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In our Ask the Vet column, Dr. Lydia Gray answers your horse-health questions at HorseChannel.com/AskTheVet. Got a question for Dr. Gray? Send it to hc-editor@luminamedia.comand use subject line "Ask the Vet."

Horse Eating Candy

Q: As you may know there are these treats with sugary foods on them that have been in high demand lately. These treats have things on them like cereal, jelly beans, sprinkles, and etc. I know you will answer these questions with "it all depends on the horse.” Are these treats are actually healthy for horses? If people do buy them, should there be a limit? Also, should there be things to look out for (like red flags) if people do buy them? Lastly, what are some treat alternatives?

A: Yes, I see a full range of horse treats on the market, from ones clearly designed to appeal to the human caretakers with s’mores, pop tarts, and "cake” in the name, to ones with no added sugar plus no ingredients on the naughty list such as molasses, dextrose, corn syrup, etc. It seems like sugar is both the main attraction as well as the main offender in treats, and that’s where my common qualifying statement "it all depends on the horse” comes in.

For horses with no health concerns surrounding sugar and starches, treats that contain these ingredients, as long as they’re given in moderation, shouldn’t be a problem. But for horses suffering from insulin dysregulation (insulin resistance and hyperinsulinemia) associated with Equine Metabolic Syndrome, Cushing’s Disease, or both, and for horses dealing with muscle disorders such as classic tying up (exertional rhabdomyolysis), Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy or PSSM, and Equine Myofibrillar Myopathy, then it might be better to search for treats that are lower in sugar or percent non-structural carbohydrates (% NSC).

There are more and more treats on the market with these types of horses in mind, so it shouldn’t be too difficult to find a brand or two that your horse enjoys and that aren’t unhealthy for him. As far as treats actually being healthy, a couple of manufacturers have strayed into the "functional treat” realm and sell a wafer or cookie with ingredients to support joint, hoof, or skin & coat health. And you can always look outside the treat category to find healthy treats, such as hay cubes. Made with alfalfa hay, a mixture of grass and alfalfa hays, or grass hay alone, nearly all of my pockets have a few hay cubes in them for when my horse needs a reward for good behavior or performance. Just like a full size bale of hay, cubes of hay flake nicely into bite-size , ready-to-eat pieces.

Earlier I used the word "moderation.” Many people like to give their horse sugar cubes, peppermint candy, or fruits and vegetables like apples, carrots, bananas, watermelon, and others. My horse has recently decided prunes are heaven on earth! While many of these common horse treats are fairly high in sugar, as long as you don’t give an entire BAG of candy or sugary ripe fruits or vegetables, your horse will probably be fine. But if you want to be on the safe side, there are more and more low sugar/starch treats coming on to the market every day so you can give your horse a tasty snack and still keep your conscience clean!

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