Is Free Fecal Water Syndrome an Issue?

Free Fecal Water Syndrome or FFWS – Is It An Issue?

Free Fecal Water Syndrome (FFWS) is a more recent term/condition with horses that has appeared in chat rooms, blogs, vets, print media, as well as lectures and presentations. FFWS is a term used when water is expelled after a normal defecation. Water may also be observed at the beginning and during fecal excretion. FFWS is not diarrhea aka “back-door-trots” and does not suggest illness or sickness.

A syndrome, by definition, is a “set of symptoms that consistently occurs”. From a management perspective this observation historically has been referred to as the “squirts”. There are no other known symptoms except for a messy butt that may need a clean-up. Be careful NOT to leap to an illness conclusion without taking a serious review of feeds, nutritional management, and general management. One also needs to pause and understand the contributions of feeds relationship with water, including the digestive process that involves water, dietary changes, combination of feeds fed, and basic feeding management.

Water is absorbed throughout the gut. The amount of water absorbed by the different segments of the gut will vary and is influence by a plethora of factors during the digestive process, including…

  • type of forage
  • form of forage (grass grazing, long-stem hay, pellets, cubes)
  • frequency forage is fed
  • adequate forage fed
  • feedstuffs that can retain water (beet pulp, soy hulls, brans)
  • protein/fiber concentrations of the forage and total diet
  • bag” feed type (balance concentrate, high grains, high fiber, high protein, high fat, over-the-counter supplements, etc.)
  • working level, growth stage, or production level
  • stress from inconsistencies with feeding management and general management
  • turn-out time, stalled-time, stable mate(s)
  • weather changes

In addition to the water consumed by drinking, the grass horses’ graze is approximately 80% water, baled hay has approximately 11% water and most “bag” feeds are around 10% water. Consumption of more water through drinking and feeds does not always translate to the additional water being processed and eliminated by the kidneys. There are feeds that attract and retain water during the digestive process including beet pulp, soy hulls and brans. There is some evidence by changing the source and/or maturity of the forage will eliminate FFWS. Bottom line is that one needs to evaluate the multitude of factors listed if the horse has the “squirts”.

For example, alfalfa hay is high protein, more protein than the horse can use. More protein translates to excess dietary nitrogen that the body needs to eliminate. Thus, the horse consumes more water to rid the body of the excess nitrogen via urine. High starch and/or high protein diets will adversely influence the gut pH thus adversely affecting the gut’s microbiome. Changes in hind gut pH with bacteria digesting starch/protein will adversely influence water balance, which is water not being absorbed from the gut but water being transfer from the body cells into the gut lumen.

Horses are continuous food consumers. Feeding forage only two times per day can lead to a long period without forage, often referenced as the “empty gut syndrome”. Bacteria are dependent on a continuous source of substrate (food) and when there is a long period of time of not eating by a continuous food consumer, there can be adverse changes within the gut. Stress from numerous changes within a horse’s environment is known to cause changes within the gut. There is science with animals that supports stress as a cause for leaky gut syndrome.

The horse’s rectum is approximately 12 inches in length and is the site in which the fecal balls take their final form. The rectum is the final site for water absorption as well as the space in which the fecal mass is held until expelled. Bottom line, managing the type and frequency of forage fed, type and amount of a balanced formula fed, fiber sources that retain water, and the horse’s activity are the first approach to address FFWS.

Granted, the squirts can be a clean-up aggravation. Keep in mind a larger vison … does the primary fecal mass consist of normal fecal balls? Most importantly is the horse consistent with eating, drinking and general behavior and are the frequency of urine and fecal excretions the same during the morning stall check.

A balanced diet complementing adequate forage with routine exercise are major components for a healthy gut thus a healthy horse.