from the Vet Corner Archives

Part of Horse Previews Magazine website. Posted on 01/06/2000; 2:00:00PM.

Veterinary Corner 01/00: This Old Horse

by Sylvia Miller, DVM
Edgecliff Equine Hospital
S. 1322 Park Road, Spokane, WA 99212 * 509/924-6069

Having just returned from the AAEP (American Association of Equine Practitioners) convention in Albuquerque, I thought I'd share with you some recommendations in the care of the geriatric horse.

Today, there are many older horses living well into their late 20's and 30's. Although genetics certainly plays a role in longevity, there are many things that owners can do to prolong a useful life and to make the "golden years" more comfortable for this old friend.

The needs of geriatric horses gradually change with time. Muscles and bones may not be as resilient and resistant to pathologic conditions or trauma; digestion of food is not as efficient, and the chewing process may be prolonged or altered; the immune system may not respond as well to the common viruses and antigens- or it may respond too well, sensitizing the body to common allergens. So what should we do with our old friends?

To start with, older horses should have a physical exam and routine bloodwork done to detect early liver and kidney changes, particularly before drastically changing the diet. Kidney and liver function may be compromised, and should be evaluated before changing to a diet high in calcium, such as alfalfa hay and beet pellets. In general, it is recommended that alfalfa (hay, pellets, cubes) be kept to less than 50% of the daily intake by weight. Moreover, some senior diets may exacerbate the progression of liver problems, so it should not be assumed that all older horses simply need "Brand X for senior horses."

The semi-annual physical exam should also include a dental exam. Older horses frequently have severe dental developments such as step mouth from loss of teeth, wave mouth from chronic (and uncorrected) exaggerated chewing motions, periodontal disease, and loss of reserve crown. This equates to a reduced capacity to chew food properly, and depending on their dental health, may necessitate changing the diet to a total pelleted ration.

To go one step further, dental problems and reduced saliva production, which is not uncommon in older horses, may lead to increased incidences of choke. This necessitates soaking all pelleted feed to a mash consistency.

Routine vaccinations and deworming are important. These vary by geographic region, the type of horse operation, population density, and emerging disease information. Have your veterinarian regularly assess what your horse needs; he/she should have the latest information on the efficacy of the available vaccines and how often they should be administered.

Cushings (pituitary adenoma) has been diagnosed in many geriatric or even middle aged horses. The clinical signs may include a heavy haircoat that is incompletely or inadequately shed out in the spring, predisposition for laminitis, supraorbital fat pads (above the eyes), pot-bellied appearance, chronic weight loss, frequent drinking and urination, to name a few, or no clinical signs at all. The diagnosis should be confirmed by one of the available endocrine function tests and treated with the appropriate medication. These horses should be fed a senior feed formulated without molasses or sweet feed.

Bones and muscles may benefit from regular exercise, extended warm ups, stretching exercises, massage therapy, various anti-inflammatory medications, joint replenishment therapies and supplements. The diagnosis and progression of bone disease (like arthritis) can be monitored by various diagnostic modalities, whether by radiographs or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging).

There are a plethora of feed supplements on the market. It would behoove the owner to carefully assess the entire feeding program before adding a supplement that may, for example, exceed the recommended minimum daily requirement for selenium or iron. Reading feed labels becomes a skill as well as an art ("contains not less than 4% but not more than 10%...). Additionally, hay varies widely in mineral content from one geographic region to another. Hay should be tested with a core sampler inserted into the middle of 10-15 bales.

Nutrition for aging horses has been the focus of research done by leading feed companies on a regional and national basis, therefore, the feeds available in your area may vary widely. Please consult your veterinarian as well as the feed manufacturer when using a senior horse feed, as they are quite variable in fiber content, protein, and fats, and each diet should be tailored to the individual horse being fed.

In conclusion, your older horse should be examined and evaluated as "the whole horse," by physical exam, dental exam, laboratory bloodwork, feed & nutrition, vaccination and deworming, and with regard to individual problems. Regular attention and observance should keep your old friend comfortable in those golden years.

Happy holidays to all of you from Edgecliff Equine!

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