Common Threads


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In some ways, horses may not be that different from dogs and cats from a healthcare perspective

If a lifelong dog owner decided, on a whim, to get a horse, they might be most concerned about how to provide the proper healthcare for this new beast. After all, that horse won’t be small enough to live in [most] houses, and she won’t spend her time burying rubber bones in the backyard. And although animal-lovers might enjoy the thought of retirement in the company of an Irish Setter or toy poodle, they would most likely be considering their newfound freedom in a different light with a 2,000-pound Clydesdale instead of a 9-pound toy poodle.

But while the differences in size and environment make the horse seem almost alien, those differences do not run as deep as they might appear, says Megan Green, DVM, manager of large animal veterinary services at Merial Animal Health. In fact, horses are often similar to companion animals such as dogs or cats when it comes to personality, many health issues, and veterinary needs.

For that reason, sales reps who are used to calling on companion-animal veterinary practices might breathe a little easier when knocking on the equine veterinarian’s door. The needs of both practices may not differ that much from each other.



“Horses and dogs can be very similar in their personalities,” says Green. Like dogs, some horses are very friendly and share a close bond with their trainers or owners. Others are loners and prefer less attention from their owners. Still, “they are highly competitive animals that excel at their job.”

The horse’s considerable size may lead one to expect that the animal faces greater health risks or significantly different challenges than those of smaller companion animals. However, their larger size does not greatly affect health, she says. Both horses and companion animals are susceptible to various diseases, “some of which are preventable through routine vaccinations, while others depend on a risk assessment” for exposure of the animal to particular diseases.

One of the main differences in healthcare is simply the place in which the animal is treated. Because they are so big, horses are normally examined by veterinarians in the stable. The veterinarian is traveling, so they must be prepared for all different onsite circumstances, as each owner manages their horse uniquely. Contrast that with the companion animal, who typically visits the veterinarian at the veterinarian’s office, where all the necessary supplies are on-hand.

As they age, horses also experience many of the same health issues that companion animals experience, such as osteoarthritis and weakened immune systems, which make it more difficult to recover from ailments. Dental disease is also prevalent. That is particularly problematic for horses, who must be able to properly chew their food. “It is essential to provide proper and routine dental care for older horses,” says Green.


What sets them apart

While the similarities between horses and companion animals are many, the fact is, horses do experience some unique healthcare challenges. For example, horses are susceptible to tendon and ligament injuries, says Green. These injuries can range in severity, from a fairly common bowed tendon, to a more complicated suspensory ligament injury or a lacerated tendon from an accident. They are also prone to lameness as a result of hoof abscesses. “Routine foot care is essential” to prevent these debilitating injuries.

Another disease that horse owners must watch for is Cushing’s Disease, formally known as Pituitary Pars Intermedia Dysfunction, or PPID. More common in older horses – between 18 and 23 years old – this pituitary gland disease often results in a shaggy coat, fat deposits along the neck and tail, lethargy, and hoof problems such as laminitis.

When it comes to finances, Green says that the cost of care depends on what the horse’s job is. For example, for horses that spend their time predominantly on the farm, the cost of care typically ranges from $500 to $1,500 per year. In contrast, care for a high performance competition horse can range from $5,000 to $25,000 or more per year.

How’s that retirement looking now?

Parasite control

Megan Green, DVM, manager of large animal veterinary services at Merial Health, lists some of the most common parasites that horse owners should be aware of.


According to Green, the primary and most common equine parasites include:

  • Roundworms – Parascaris equorum
  • Strongyles
  • Large Strongyles
  • Small Strongyles – Cyathostomes
  • Tapeworms – Anoplocephala perfoliata


The secondary equine parasites include:

  • Lungworms
  • Pinworms
  • Bots
  • Threadworms
  • Onchocerca spp.
  • Habronema spp.


Green explains that horses require deworming to assist with parasite control, as well as annual and semi-annual vaccinations, and annual or semi-annual routine dental care. Some owners also seek joint therapy and alternative medicine – including acupuncture, chiropractics, and massage therapy – for their horses.