by Casie Bazay

7 Causes of Free Fecal Water Syndrome In Horses

7 Causes of Free Fecal Water Syndrome In Horses

Does your horse tend to have stained back legs and/or a dirty tail? Or are your horse’s stall walls and bedding messier than normal? If this is happening on a frequent basis, it could be due to a common but often overlooked condition known as Free Fecal Water Syndrome (FFWS). 

With this condition, a horse produces normal feces, but before, during, or after defecation, free water runs out of the anus, creating stains along the horse’s back legs, messy stalls, and a recurring maintenance issue for horse owners to address. 

FFWS differs from infectious diarrhea because there aren’t typically any direct health concerns associated with it. It isn’t considered dangerous, but there are some indirect problems that can occur with FFWS. 

For example, the watery feces can irritate the skin on the horse’s hind legs and during the winter months, when FFWS symptoms are more common, the tail may remain wet and put the horse at risk for possible frostbite. In warm weather, the fecal water may also attract more flies to the horse which can create even more irritation

Occasionally, horses will experience more severe cases of FFWS which can lead to weight loss and a general decline in condition. However, in most cases symptoms remain mild and can often be addressed through dietary and management changes. 

Symptoms of Free Fecal Water Syndrome in Horses

FFWS appears to be a symptom of broader dietary and/or management issues. Symptoms may be overlooked in some circumstances but they include:

  • Fecal matter soaked on the hind legs, tail, and around the anus;
  • Irritation or skin lesions on the hind legs due to fecal water leaking out;
  • Dermatitis around the hind legs, tail dock, or area around the anus;
  • Signs of discomfort when defecating such as tail swishing or nervous trampling;
  • Stall walls and bedding frequently stained with dirty with fecal water; 
  • Abdominal bloating; and
  • In some cases, it may be associated with colic.

Equine Fecal Water Syndrome

Certain horses appear to be at greater risk for FFWS such as geldings and older horses. This may be due to the fact that these horses are lower on the social hierarchy scale and tend to experience more anxiety. Additionally, horses recovering from severe colitis (infection of the large intestine) can also be predisposed to FFWS. 

Researchers believe that the hindgut of horses with FFWS likely experiences changes such as increased motility, strong gut contractions, and/or inflammation–all of which impair the gut’s ability to absorb water. 

Symptoms of FFWS can last for a few days, several months, or even years. Symptoms may also increase or decrease in severity over time. 

What Causes Equine Fecal Water Syndrome? 

Though researchers aren’t quite sure what causes fecal water syndrome in horses, studies have shown that several factors appear to be linked with the condition. These include:

1) Dietary Imbalances: Researchers have found that horses with FFWS are more likely to be fed high-concentrate diets, often rich in grains such as oats, barley, or corn. Therefore, it is recommended that horse owners trying to treat this problem keep starch to a minimum or avoid grains altogether. 

The only horses who might need the added energy from grains are active horses that would lose body condition otherwise. However, grain alternatives such as beet pulp or alfalfa-based feeds might be more appropriate for many of these horses. 

2) Dietary Changes: Sudden dietary changes may also lead to FFWS symptoms. This would include a change from grass to hay, switching the type of hay, or increasing the amount of grain fed. 

All dietary changes should be made slowly, over a period of 7-10 days to allow the horse’s gut microbiome to adjust. 

3) Type of Forage/Fiber: Horses displaying symptoms of FFWS need access to good quality forage throughout the day, but the type of forage fed may lead to FFWS symptoms. Horse owners should consider that various types of forages have different properties as well as amounts and types of fiber and moisture. 

Each can have a different effect on a horse’s gastrointestinal system. For example, the fiber in beet pulp tends to be more digestible than fiber in long-stem grass hay, but the horse might chew hay more thoroughly and, as a result, produce more saliva which helps with the digestive process. 

Because of this, horse owners should be open to trying different types and combinations of forage/fiber in order to relieve FFWS symptoms. 

4) Gut Dysbiosis: An imbalance in the gut bacteria, known as gut dysbiosis is another factor that appears to be linked with FFWS. Dysbiosis occurs when there is a change in the bacterial population that resides in the horse’s gastrointestinal tract. 

Beneficial bacteria which help the horse with the digestive process can become depleted, allowing pathogenic bacteria species to take over. Dysbiosis is often the result of stress, dietary changes, or antibiotic use. 

5) Inflammation in the Gut: As noted above, researchers have found that FFWS occurs more frequently in horses that have experienced colitis, an inflammatory condition of the inner lining of the colon. 

However, other inflammatory conditions of the gut may lead to FFWS as well. Because water is mainly absorbed by the large intestine, inflammation of the intestinal wall could impair the absorption of water in the digestive tract, causing more water to be expelled in the feces. 

6) Poor Dentition: Dental problems which result in difficulty chewing may also be a contributing factor in FFWS. Because digestion begins in the mouth with the teeth breaking food down into smaller, more digestible pieces, the inability to properly chew can lead to digestive issues. This could be from sharp or diseased teeth, an imbalance in the bite, or other dental issues. 

Having a veterinarian or equine dentist examine your horse’s teeth is the first step in addressing this problem, but in some cases older horses or those with poor teeth who can’t properly chew long-stemmed forage may need chaff or chopped hay, or possibly soaked hay pellets or cubes.

Equine Fecal Water Syndrome Float

7) Stress: Stress is a known factor which can affect gut health in horses as well as all types of animals. Horses that experience frequent stress are more at risk for a variety of digestive issues including gastric ulcers, colic, and FFWS. Common sources of stress for horses include:

  • Changes in social groups;
  • Feeding time competition;
  • Changes in management;
  • Intense exercise or training;
  • Extreme weather changes; and
  • Being stalled and having little turnout time. 

Some sources of stress are unavoidable, but in many instances, owners can help to reduce the amount of stress their horse experiences by making some management changes. 

Supplements for FFWS in Horses

Three specific supplements to consider for FFWS horses are psyllium, probiotics, and prebiotics. 

Though feeding psyllium husks is traditionally recommended to prevent sand colic for horses living in sandy areas, adding wet pure psyllium husk fiber may help to improve bowel regularity in horses with FFWS as well. 

Supplementing with high-quality probiotics, such as EQ Probiotic Pellets Extra Strength, is beneficial for balancing the gut bacteria and may help to resolve FFWS symptoms as well. Probiotic supplements boost the number of beneficial bacteria within the horse’s digestive system and also help to support the immune system, which is important during times of stress. 

Prebiotics may be another helpful ingredient to add into the diet of horses with FFWS. Prebiotics are nonliving, non-digestible ingredients that stimulate the growth of the good bacteria within the horse’s digestive system. 

In other words, prebiotics are food for the probiotics and therefore, are helpful to feed in combination with probiotic supplements. Some examples of prebiotics in the equine diet include: beet pulp, oat hulls, soy hulls, and fructooligosaccharides. EQ Probiotic Pellets Extra Strength also contain prebiotics for maximum efficacy.

If Diet Changes Don’t Help…

In chronic, unresponsive cases of FFWS that don’t respond to dietary or management changes, your veterinarian may be able to perform a fecal transplant. While not always 100% effective, this procedure has shown some success according to studies. 

It involves collecting feces from a healthy horse with a low parasite burden, mixing it with water and fiber pellets and administering the mixture to the affected horse via nasogastric tube. The goal is to boost beneficial gut bacteria and restore a healthy balance to the horse’s gastrointestinal microbiome. 

If your horse shows no improvement in FFWS symptoms despite attempts to address the problem, another underlying health issue could be to blame. Your veterinarian may want to run other diagnostic tests such as:

  • Bloodwork –Complete Blood Count (CBC) and Biochemistry profile to rule out infectious causes of diarrhea or inflammatory bowel disease. 
  • Fecal Egg Count–to detect high worm burdens.
  • Cushing’s Disease test–A metabolic disease of older horses which may inhibit recovery efforts for FFWS.
  • Rectal exam or ultrasound–to investigate intestinal inflammation or cancer.
  • Gastroscopy–for possible stomach ulcers. 

More research is needed to further pinpoint exact causes and treatment of free fecal water syndrome  in horses, but in many cases, consulting with your veterinarian and implementing dietary and management changes can help to improve or eliminate symptoms altogether. 

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