Cribbing in Horses

Cribbing in horses is not a disease, but rather an inappropriate behavioural pattern in horses, also called “stereotypic behaviour”. Cribbing is considered to be an abnormal, compulsive behaviour or stereotypy seen in some horses, and is often labelled a stable vice. The major factors that cause cribbing include stress, stable management, genetics and gastrointestinal irritability.

Cribbing or crib biting involves a horse grasping a solid object such as the stall door or fence rail with its incisor teeth, then arching its neck, and contracting the lower neck muscles to retract the larynx. This coincides with an in-rush of air into the oesophagus producing the characteristic cribbing grunt.

Cribbing is a compulsive, repetitive behavioural disorder, and like any other harmful addiction, a cribber needs help controlling itself.

Cribbing seems to start mostly in younger horses. To reduce the risk of cribbing, you can make sure the young horse spends as much time as possible on pasture and has a lot of social contact with other horses. There is some evidence to suggest that certain grain diets may increase the risk of this habit developing.

There is no doubt that cribbing can have a negative impact on a horse’s health. It can increase a horse’s risk of getting colic or stomach ulcers. Also, excessive tooth wear may also affect the ability of older cribbers to eat properly. Cribbing may also result in weight loss; some horses may prefer to crib than eat. Alternatively, it is thought that excess air in the stomach from cribbing may decrease a horse’s appetite.

Cribbing behaviour is easily visualised and therefore very simple to diagnose. If you notice this problem in your horse, a visit from your veterinarian is a good idea, as he or she will perform a thorough physical exam on your horse, taking into account the history of symptoms to make sure there are no other underlying problems. Your veterinarian will also want to take a closer look at your horse’s mouth to check for changes to the teeth. You can then work with your veterinarian to find ways to help enrich your horse’s environment and discourage the behaviour.

Some common treatment options include:

  • A cribbing collar or a cribbing strap. This strap makes it uncomfortable for the horse to flex his neck, but the strap does not harm the horse.
  • Diets that contain more forage and less grain seem to have fewer cribbing implications.
  • A toy may reduce cribbing rates, as may more outdoor activity and socialisation.
  • You can eliminate cribbing surfaces or electrify cribbing surfaces such as fence posts.
  • A surgical option is available that involves removing small pieces of certain muscles and nerves in the neck. However, this surgery requires general anaesthesia and still in some horses may not completely solve the behaviour.

By Michael-j Goddard

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