Thanks to advances in veterinary medicine, today’s horses are living longer and more comfortable lives than horses in the past. However, in order to make use of these advances, owners must first be able to detect when there’s something not quite right with their animals–especially with geriatric horses. Do you know what problems your senior horse might encounter? Do you know what common symptoms to watch for as your horse ages? In this article we will outline some of the more common problems and their symptoms.
The first thing most people notice about their aging equine partners is that they lose weight more readily than they used to. This can be due to a number of different problems, but most commonly is caused by either poor teeth or less efficient absorption of nutrients. Both of these issues can be addressed with the help of one of our vets. Hopefully your horse has had regular dental care throughout its life and just needs a routine dental exam and float. However, geriatric horses frequently suffer from profound dental difficulties, which are compounded if they haven’t had the benefit of regular dentistry throughout their lives. Unfortunately, rotten or missing teeth can make it difficult for the horse to chew. When a horse can’t chew properly, he can’t extract the nutrition he needs from his diet, no matter how balanced or digestible it is. He is also more prone to impaction colic and choke.
Combine the likelihood of dental difficulties in older horses with his decreased ability to absorb certain nutrients in the gut, and it’s easy to see why some geriatrics begin to look like victims of famine, even when they’re provided with lots of feed. This is where a good QUALITY Senior diet comes in. The seniors that you might classify as hard keepers, should have regular dental exams, and should be consuming an appropriate amount of a complete senior feed. Companies like Purina, Nutrena, and Buckeye all carry good quality senior feeds. Complete feeds can be fed in large quantities to horses that can no longer absorb enough nutrients from forage. The average horse can eat as much as 10lbs of complete senior feed per day. Soaked hay cubes and pellets can also be beneficial to the senior horse that has trouble chewing hay. Remember the better quality the feed the more efficiently your horse can utilize it.
You may also notice that your older horse has trouble in extreme weather. Your senior horse may have trouble with thermoregulation, which is maintaining their internal body temperature. This makes it important to provide relief during periods of extreme heat or cold. For example in the extreme cold he should have shelter from rain, snow and high winds and, if necessary, a blanket to help keep him warm. In the extreme heat be sure your horse has a shady spot. You might install a fan to help them stay cool, body clip excessively hairy horses, or you might hose your horse daily, and always make sure he has an abundance of clean water to drink from both in the heat and in the cold.
Lameness and arthritis can also cause problems for your senior horse. Arthritis eventually catches up to everyone. For some older horses, the symptoms remain mild–perhaps a little stiffness on cold mornings or after a night of inactivity in a stall, which they will warm out of as they begin to move. For others, arthritis can express itself in more severe lameness. It can be crippling, but when caught in the earliest stages it can be treated with injectable treatments or anti-inflammatory drugs. Many older horses in our practice live on a gram of Bute daily and are very comfortable. In addition to arthritis in the joints, the tendons and ligaments of older horses often lose elasticity, making them more prone to injury. All these conditions can interfere with an older horse’s mobility, enthusiasm for exercise, and stability. If you notice any of these problems with your older horse contact the office for a consultation with one of our doctors to see how we might be able to help. There are many different options for managing arthritis and diagnosing lameness.
As horses get older they also may experience other complications that are less common. Liver and kidney problems are characterized by weight loss, lethargy, jaundice, and loss of appetite. Symptoms of a pituitary tumor, or Cushing’s disease, can include weight loss, laminitis, a compromised immune system, increased thirst and urination, and a characteristically heavy (and often curly) hair coat that fails to shed in the summer. Cushing’s disease can be diagnosed with a Dexamethasone suppression test and treated with a drug called Pracend. A horse with metabolic syndrome or hypothyroidism is at increased risk of obesity and founder. Many of these conditions can be diagnosed with a physical exam and bloodwork. Once a diagnosis is made, the veterinarian can make recommendations for treatment or management that can help keep the horse healthy.
Senior horses are susceptible to several common types of cancer including skin tumors (squamous cell carcinomas or sarcoids) and abdominal fat lipomas, which are not malignant, but can cause problems because they can wrap around portions of the intestine and obstruct the flow of blood and abdominal contents. Unfortunately these are symptomatically diagnosed (often after repeated colic episodes) and the only treatment is surgical. Melanomas are also quite common in older, usually gray, horses. They are typically benign, but can cause problems as they grow in size. External melanomas can be removed by surgery or cryotherapy.
Although our focus in this article has been the successful management of the aging process, a dwindling appetite or body condition score, chronic pain, immobility (a lack of desire to move), chronic colic, or the inability to control pain and self-imposed isolation from the herd–any or all of these symptoms can tell you that your horse’s quality of life is minimal. When that fateful day is reached, humane euthanasia is the most generous final gift you can give your old friend. At HEHC we know that is a decision no one wants to make but we are here to assist you with the difficult decision. Though it may be heartbreaking to let go, euthanasia is the kindest thing for a horse that no longer enjoys any sort of quality of life.