Calcium balance and bone density in immature horses fed a high protein diet
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Studies in other species indicate high protein diets increase urinary calcium (Ca) excretion and may lead to negative calcium balance and reduced bone density. As overfeeding of protein is commonplace in the horse industry, this study was undertaken to determine the effects of excess dietary protein on growth, physiologic response, mineral balance, bone density, and bone geometry in immature horses. Sixteen 10-month-old American Quarter Horses were blocked by age and sex into two dietary treatments. The control diet was formulated to provide the NRC (1989) recommended concentration of crude protein, while the high protein diet provided 130% of NRC (1989) recommendations. All other nutrients were formulated at or slightly above NRC (1989) recommendations. Blood samples, feces, and urine were collected during the 116-day study to determine any diet effect on pH and mineral balance. Radiographs were made of the left third metacarpal (MCIII) to determine bone density via radiographic bone aluminum equivalence (RBAE), and bone geometry was determined metrically from the radiographs. Urine pH decreased over time (p < 0.001), but there were no diet effects on blood pH or urine pH. Conversely, when normalized to day 0 values, fecal pH was reduced by feeding the high protein treatment (p < 0.02). Density of dorsal and palmar cortices increased over time (p < 0.001), but no differences were observed between diets. But, normalized total medial-lateral (ML) width of the MCIII was higher in the control diet (p < 0.05). Fecal Ca loss was greater in horses fed the high protein diet (p < 0.005), while Ca absorption and retention were lower for horses on the high protein treatment (p < 0.02). Phosphorus (P) balance was not different between diets, although feeding the high protein diet resulted in higher P intake overall (p < 0.001). While excess dietary protein may decrease fecal pH, increase fecal Ca excretion, and decrease Ca absorption and retention, there was no consistent effect of the high protein diet on bone density over the course of this study. Further research is necessary to determine if feeding high-protein diets is detrimental to bone quality in the growing horse.
Spooner, Holly Sue (2005). Calcium balance and bone density in immature horses fed a high protein diet. Master's thesis, Texas A&M University. Texas A&M University. Available electronically from