from the Vet Corner Archives

Part of Horse Previews Magazine website. Posted on 09/2000; 2:00:00PM.

Veterinary Corner 09/00: Preparing The Geriatric Horse For Winter

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

Older horses have special needs. Their digestive systems, including their teeth, are often less efficient than those of a younger horses'. They may be sore from the wear and tear of arthritis, and less likely to be on the top of the pecking order for their food. They may suffer from medical problems that weaken the immune system and cause other systemic effects.

The most common complaint from owners about older horses is that they have a hard time keeping weight on them. There are a myriad of problems that can make an older horse either thin or a hard keeper. Often more than one factor is involved.

Some causes of weight loss/thinness may be easy for the owner to detect. Competition from younger, more aggressive horses for feed is a common cause of weight loss problems. If the horse is eating more slowly than normal, dropping wads of hay out of its mouth, or dropping grain as it eats, then it probably has a significant dental problem.

Other causes of weight loss in the older horse may require a physical examination, and possibly blood work and a fecal examination by your veterinarian. One disease, known most commonly as Cushing's but more correctly referred to as pituitary dysfunction, can cause weight loss, delayed shedding and/or long or curly hair coat, laminitis, and increased urination and drinking. This is a treatable disease that can be detected with blood work. Blood work can also pick up signs of kidney or liver disease.

There are many senior diets on the market, and they all vary greatly in their nutrient composition. This can be very significant. For example, a horse with liver disease should not be on a high fat diet. A horse with kidney disease would not do well on a diet high in calcium and protein.

The following is a step-by-step guide to preparing your geriatric horse for winter. All older horses, whether thin or not, should have the following in late summer.

1. If your horse has not had a comprehensive dental examination within the past year, make an appointment now. Dental work in late summer will give your horse a better shot at keeping its weight normal when it gets cold. All horses should have an annual dental examination. A thorough exam always includes sedating the horse, putting a full mouth speculum in the mouth, and looking at and feeling each tooth. This is especially important for geriatrics, who suffer commonly from gum disease, misaligned teeth, and tooth decay.

2. Deworm your horse. Many people in this area deworm four times per year. This does not control all of the parasites in all horses. You have two options. One is to have regular (at least four times per year) fecal examinations run in order to find out which parasite control program is right for you. If you go this route, discuss it with your veterinarian in order to determine when and how to collect the fecals. The other is to deworm every six to eight weeks. I like to alternate between pyrantel and ivermectin, substituting Quest in the fall and spring if your horse is of normal weight and healthy. DO NOT use Quest on a horse that is thin, has an unknown deworming history, or health problems. Read the label carefully before use. Contrary to what many have read on the internet, these dewormers are very safe when used correctly.

If your older horse is thin going into winter:

1.Separate the horse from the rest of the herd until it is back to its normal weight.

2. Buy an inexpensive scale at the feed store. Make sure that the horse is getting at least 1.5 pounds of good quality hay per 100 pounds of body weight. A mixture of half alfalfa and half grass hay is a good choice for many horses. Additionally, if your horse has no known health problems, the addition of a senior diet at 1/2 pound per 100 pounds of body weight is usually safe. If your horse has medical problems (especially laminitis - also known as founder) or dental problems, talk to your veterinarian before feeding grains or a senior diet.

3. When it starts to get cold, buy a lightly lined, waterproof blanket for the horse. If horses are wet and cold, they have to increase their metabolic rates to stay warm, and this makes it harder for them to gain or maintain weight. The blanket will protect it from dampness and wind. It is OK for the horse to wear the blanket all winter, as long as you check underneath it on a daily basis to make sure that no sores or skin conditions are developing under it. Since coat length is determined by the season, your horse will still grow a nice winter coat under the blanket.

3. If your horse is not gaining weight steadily after 6 weeks of the above measures, call your veterinarian. Your horse will need a thorough physical examination, and probably blood work, in order to diagnose any medical problems that may be present. The results of this examination and blood work are important, because they will help your veterinarian prescribe the correct diet and/or medications.

Note: Horses with arthritis may be stiffer in winter and need pain medication. Those with tender feet, especially from recurrent bouts of founder, may benefit from shoes with snow pads during the cold season.

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