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The liver of the horse: function and support


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Hepatic activity horse

The sport horse’s diet, because of its high-energy requirements, is characterized by the administration of highly concentrated diets and the liver is the most involved organ in the elaboration of a great number of nutrients.


The liver is a metabolic organ, vascular and with excretory and secretory function. It is placed in abdominal cavities, behind the diaphragm and it is the largest gland of the horse and according to the breed, it weighs between 5 and 9 kg. About 10% of the total volume of blood of a horse is found in the liver, therefore any problems related to this organ can have significant consequences on the health of the animal.

The liver functions are many and can be summarized as follows:

  • Production and secretion of bile, important for the metabolism of fats and the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins
  • Filtration and blood reservoir
  • Detoxifying function: neutralizes toxic substances through chemical reactions
  • Metabolic function: carbohydrates, fats, proteins, volatile fatty acids, sugars and glycogen
  • Protein synthesis: plasma-like albumins, globulins, fibrinogen and carrier, necessary for the transport of fats in the digestive tract
  • Synthesis and storage of vitamins: vitamins A and D are produced in the liver and it also stores vitamins E and K
  • Production of heat
  • Storage of glycogen and its conversion to glucose and the opposite
  • Storage of iron
  • Endocrine activity: production of hormones such as hepcidin regulating the distribution

Some studies report that the total lack of liver function is a rare event in the horse, for this to happen, at least 70% of the liver has to be damaged. On the contrary, alterations in liver efficiency are quite common and often associated with filtering and detoxification activity.

When is liver function altered?

Altered liver function can have different microbiological, parasitic, genetic, or tumour causes. In equine practice, however, there are more frequent nutritional causes due to contaminants in feed, the presence of toxic plants or poor quality concentrated feed. Underestimating the importance of the liver and the possibility of supporting it with specially formulated complementary feeds is a very common mistake in the world of equestrian sports. Signs of deficit, in fact, are often overlooked because not particularly clear, such as poor athletic performance and lazy behaviour and opacity of the hair, loss of appetite. As liver changes progress, behavioural and neurological disorders can occur, as well as yellow mucous membrane staining.

Can dietary errors compromise liver metabolism?

Liver Epatoliv

A diet based on the excessive use of fats can lead to an accumulation of lipids in the liver cells, where they are usually not present, decreasing the function of the organ. This happens when the ration does not consider the horse’s activity, depending on the work and discipline (aerobic or anaerobic work). In addition to poor nutrition, also fasting can seriously compromise liver function. Fasting is, in fact, one of the causes of cholestasis, that impedes the flow of bile into the duodenum. This dysfunction, in addition to fasting, can be caused by functional and mechanical disorders, due to the use of synthetic chemicals.


How should a diet be set for a horse with altered liver function?

When proper liver function is compromised, the diet should be low in protein, but the one supplied in moderate amounts should be of high biological value. The ration should include a good amount of non-structural carbohydrates. If it is a continuous change over time, proteins should be administered in slightly higher amounts. 

Permanent pasture hays are to be preferred and those of alfalfa are to be avoided; the high protein intake would overload the liver too much.

Liver horse

Are there any products to support liver function?

There are numerous products on the market to support liver function. We have to prefer natural products based on plant extracts that perform beneficial activities without overloading the liver of new micronutrients to be split. A complementary feed useful in these situations is Epatoliv, with plant extracts of Silybum Mariano, Curcuma Longa and Taraxacum officinalis. Silybum marianum is known to most people as milk thistle and silymarin is the substance found in its fruits. This has a protective action on the membrane of the liver cell and its properties are known in the bibliography because supported by several studies. Curcuma is a plant rich in starches, whose main substance is curcumin that has a high antioxidant capacity comparable to vitamins E and C. Besides, it has beneficial effects on the gastro-enteric tract because it improves the secretion of enzymes involved in digestion. Finally, the dandelion is rich in inulin that helps to keep active the bacterial flora and therefore the welfare of the whole organism. Inulin is considered a prebiotic substance capable of promoting the activity of positive bacterial flora at the expense of the harmful ones. It also helps to promote the increase of bile production by the liver and to protect liver cells.

Thanks to its peculiar composition, Epatoliv is the recommended product to support the liver function of the horse. Its use is particularly useful in sports horses, which have often to activate detoxification mechanisms and in which many nutrients must be “filtered”.

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  • Hepatic diseases in horses. Bergero D, 2008
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  • Effects of a blend of green tea and curcuma extract supplementation on lipopolysaccharide-induced inflammation in horses and ponies. Starzonek J, 2019
  • The Equine Liver in Health and Disease, 2015 American Association of Equine Practitioners Convention
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