Crib Biting 101

Crib Biting 101

What is crib biting?

Whether it is called crib biting, cribbing or aerophagia, this is a repetitive habit of some horses which involves the biting and chewing of wood in the stable, causing excessive wear to the front teeth.

The horse actually places his upper incisors on the wood and sucks in a large amount of air. This will make a gulping noise.

Why do horse’s crib?

Think about why horse’s crib from the horse’s perspective: horses need to chew, move, interact with other horses and have access to forage almost constantly. This means that when they’re stabled, their chewing opportunities are limited or their diet is changed, horses become stressed horses even if they don’t outwardly appear stressed.

It is now thought that there is correlation between cribbing and gastric ulcers, after a study of nineteen young horses that started to perform the stereotypy of crib-biting was compared with a study of 16 non-stereotypic horses for 14 weeks. It showed that the act of crib biting temporarily relieves the pain caused by acids hitting the wounds. When the horse locks down and sucks in air, the stomach inflates, raising the ulcerated top portion of the stomach away from the irritating acids.

Just as us humans and other animals can sometimes exhibit obsessive-compulsive behaviour; horses too will exhibit repetitive and habitual behaviours that are difficult to control or understand why it occurs.

Horses that are highly strung and are kept in an environment with low levels of daily stimulation, such as not enough turn out, are at higher risk of developing such behavioural problems.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms include some or all of the following:

* Gnaw marks usually found on wood pieces, such as stable doors and fence posts.

* Top front teeth, incisors, are worn more than normally found in a horse of its age

* Arching the neck while grasping onto an object with the incisors while gulping air

* Grunting noises as the horse gulps air.

What will happen if it’s left untreated?

While in some horses crib biting has no clear causes, for others it is a symptom of gastric ulceration that needs to be treated by a vet.

It can also lead to some superficial health issues, such as the abnormal wearing of the upper incisors and enlargement of the throat muscles.  

Is it a vice that will be copied?

It was long thought that crib biting was a learned behaviour, i.e. foals learned it from their dams, horses picked it up from their stable mates or field mates. The current thinking is that it maybe copied but it is unlikely.

Owners who do believe this myth may actually exacerbate the behaviour if they decide to isolate the horse from others.

Can a horse be cured of crib biting?

If necessary, a cribbing collar can be used to reduce a horse's physical ability to crib, but because they limit the horse's own coping mechanisms against stress, the behaviour is often worse when the cribbing collar is removed.

Is a cribbing collar cruel?

Although a cribbing collar is generally very effective and doesn't cause stress, they must be tight to be effective and thus can cause abrasions on the skin beneath them. It is known that they don’t cause stress as the horses' blood cortisol levels do not rise when is a cribbing collar is worn.

Is wind sucking the same as crib biting?

No. Wind sucking is when the horse arches its neck and sucks in air to its oesophagus which makes the same noise that is produced when crib biting. The difference is the horse hasn't gripped anything in its teeth whilst wind sucking.

What is the solution to stop crib biting?

* Turn out or increase the time of turn out in a field

* Turn out with other horses

* Provide access to constant or regular “grazing” of grass and hay

* Apply crib biting products to deter the chewing of wood. 

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Kim Horton

Co-Founder of EQUUS and a keen equestrian, when Kim's not at her desk she's with her horse, Waldo.

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