Geriatric Horse Care
As we age, we must make changes to our lifestyle in order to maintain skeletal, muscle, and anatomical integrity. This is also true for horses. While there are many tests that can be performed to assess a horse’s condition, horse owners should be proactive in their aging horse’s health care in order to prevent health problems from worsening and allow your horse to age as comfortably as possible.
Many horse owners believe that vaccinations or deworming is not important for older horses, but just the opposite is the case as immunity wanes with age. Bi-annual veterinary visits, vaccines, and parasite control help keep your horse healthy and keep you informed of any veterinary-recommended changes to diet or exercise.
Older horses require nutritious feed or supplements due to changes in their bodies, activity levels and eating behaviors. The majority of feed should be a high-quality, easily digestible roughage, or a complete pelleted feed, adding fat if necessary. Feeding easily digestible food is easier on the horse’s system and can trigger better eating habits, helping to keep weight on.
Body Condition & Weight Loss
Keeping your horse a healthy weight and strength with proper exercise and diet is one of the best things a horse owner can do for their older horse. While keeping weight on can be difficult, a dedicated exercise routine, along with ample warm-up time and a good diet can make all the difference. Possible causes of weight loss include:
- Dental disease
- Intestinal disease
- Systemic disease
The risk and severity of colic increases with age, along with the risk of colic that requires surgery. Read about colic emergencies at UF, along with ways to help prevent colic from happening and what to do if it does.
There is an increased risk of quarter cracks, abscesses, laminitis, and fractures as horses age, and knowing the early signs of these issues can save costly veterinary or farrier care. Be sure to schedule regular visits with your veterinarian and farrier to diagnose and treat hoof or lameness problems.
Horse’s teeth change as they age due to natural development, vices, injuries or changes in eating behavior. Dental exams for older horses are recommended every six months, but you should schedule an exam with your veterinarian if the following clinical signs are present:
- Weight loss
- Difficulty chewing
- Quidding (dropping grain)
- Recurrent choke
- Long fibers or grain in the feces
Other Aging Ailments
Older horses have a tendency to become arthritic. Diagnosing arthritis by a veterinarian first requires the horse owner knowing the clinical signs, such as stiffness or lameness. There are many treatment options available, and working with your veterinarian in the initial stages of arthritis can help prevent more invasive treatment options.
Heaves, also referred to as “equine asthma,” is recurrent airway obstruction caused by inflammation of the lower airways, typically due to hypersensitivity to inhaled molds and dusts. The clinical signs of heaves may include coughing, nasal discharge, exercise intolerance, post-exercise breathing difficulty and a visible “heave” line (pictured left).
The risk of diarrhea increases with age due to disruption of normal physiological processes. It is common and can be frustrating to diagnose and treat. Some causes are parasitism, IBD, sand, lympohsarcoma, NSAIDs, salmonella, abdominal abscesses and other systemic diseases. Keep your horse properly hydrated at all times and work with your veterinarian to treat diarrhea as soon as it starts.
Neoplasia is the formation of growths, and the risk increases with age. Squamous cell carcinoma tumors or growths may form along the eyes, prepuce and stomach. Other forms of neoplasia are melanomas, lymphoma and adenocarcinoma.
Cushing’s disease is the loss of dopamine production in the hypothalamus. Horses over the age of seven can get Cushing’s disease, but the average age is 19-21 and prevalence of the disease increases drastically after 30 years. Clinical signs of Cushing’s disease include:
- Hirsuitism and poor hair coat
- Polyuria/polydipsia (increased water consumption and urination)
- Lethargy or docile attitude
- Hyperhydrosis (excessive sweating)
- Ravenous appetite
- Muscle mass atrophy
- Budging eyes
Equine Metabolic Syndrome
Equine Metabolic Syndrome is a developed resistance to insulin. All horses over the age of five are at risk, but the most common breeds are morgans, paso finos, arabs, fjords and horses with a genetic predisposition. Clinical signs include:
- Regional adiposity (accumulation of fat in certain areas)
The UF Large Animal Hospital veterinarians treat equine and large animal patients from the Gainesville, Ocala and Jacksonville areas, including Alachua and Marion Counties in Florida, and our clients come from all over the United States. Contact us to speak to one of our specialists or to make an appointment.