The Golden Years – Caring for the Senior Horse
Veterinarians can advocate for care of the senior horse
With improvements in better vaccines and deworming protocols, and more attention to care and nutrition, horses are living longer. It’s anticipated that horses can live well into their 20s, and even 30s with good care provided.
Veterinarians can encourage horse owners to focus on several areas of care for the senior horse, which is usually considered starting at age 15.
Sarah M Reuss, VMD, DACVIM, is the equine technical manager for Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health. She has served as a practicing veterinarian, and as a consultant and faculty member in veterinary internal medicine. She discussed with Veterinary-Advantage how veterinarians play an important role in making sure horses receive routine care, even after they have been retired to the pasture.
“I think trying to really advocate for a good exam and blood work on any horse, but especially on older horses on a yearly basis, is something as veterinarians we need to be more proactive about doing and teaching our horse owners to do,” Reuss said. “When compared to other companion animals, for example, dog owners seem to accept or appreciate routine bloodwork when they bring their pet in for its annual shots. For whatever reason, that hasn’t always caught on in equine medicine and it really should.”
Reuss continued, “In any horse, but especially in these older horse populations, I encourage owners to check kidney function and liver function at least yearly. Let’s see if there are any hints that there’s something going on that we can intervene sooner rather than later,” she said. “It’s especially important if they are a horse that needs to be on a non-steroidal for arthritis or has some things that may indicate this horse is starting to get PPID or having some insulin issues.”
Areas of care veterinarians and horse owners should focus on include:
- Feet and legs
“Nutrition is obviously huge for every horse, but especially when we’re looking at that aging horse population,” Reuss said. “Horse owners should pay attention to the animal’s actual caloric needs. If you have a horse that as a younger horse was a high-level athlete, their caloric needs are going to go down when they’re retired and not doing as much versus other horses, whose caloric requirement may actually increase a little bit just because of aging.”
Horse owners need to keep a close eye on body condition scores and make sure the horse is not going either direction. “We certainly don’t want them too skinny, but we also don’t want them too fat,” she added.
“Paying close attention to a horse’s teeth is also important and goes along with nutrition,” Reuss said. “We know horses are essentially born with pretty much the number of teeth they’re going to have, and they’re going to wear down that surface. For some horses, by the time they reach age 20, they may have some significant dental issues if they haven’t been kept up with throughout life. That’s going to affect their ability to chew. We’re going to have to make sure that we feed those horses differently.”
Feet and legs
“Make sure horses are still getting their feet trimmed at least every two to three months,” Reuss explained. “If a horse was constantly being looked at and is now a little bit more pasture pet or retired animal, horse owners should still think about them because their feet still grow. This is important not only from a comfort level but also because some of the diseases that these older horses get like PPID can cause things like laminitis. The earlier you can catch those changes in their feet the better.”
In addition, Reuss says many older horses start to have various aches and pains, and arthritis in different joints, so keeping an eye on everything and keeping their feet comfortable help the rest of their joints.
Exercise should still be a part of routine care for senior horses as well
“Most horses do better with at least turnout or some low-grade exercise,” Reuss said. “I think sometimes people retire them and think, ‘Oh look, they can just hang out in a small area, or in a stall, or something like that.’ The consistent ability to move around, unless there’s some significant other health issue, is better for most horses. They can either self-exercise or have a little bit of a light exercise on a day-to-day basis.”
“One of the more common misconceptions or questions we get about older horses relates to vaccines,” Reuss said. “Horse owners think because a horse has been vaccinated every year their whole life they can back off on their vaccines now.”
The truth is actually the opposite.
“We know, especially for horses with PPID, their response to a vaccine is different,” she explained. “If anything, horses need to stay on a regular schedule and in some instances may even actually need to be vaccinated more frequently, depending on where you are in the country. If you’re in somewhere like Florida where there are mosquitoes year-round and you have older horses, you really can’t back off at all because things like West Nile and EEE (Eastern equine encephalomyelitis) are still going to potentially be an issue for your older horse even if they were vaccinated six months every year as a youngster.”
Reuss encourages horse owners and veterinarians to keep up on vaccinations for diseases horses can get from the environment.
“Diseases like West Nile virus, EEE, tetanus, and rabies are going to be the things that no matter what your horse does, even if it never needs to leave the property, it’s still in contact with soil, mosquitoes, and the great outdoors,” Reuss said. “All of those things remain an issue throughout the course of their life.”
Horse owners have gotten better at doing strategic deworming based on fecal exams, Reuss acknowledged, so it’s important to continue those observations and deworming programs.
“You may have a horse that was a low shedder most of his life,” she said. “Every time you checked a fecal on him, his eggs per gram were less than 200. He was one that maybe only had to get dewormed twice a year. That can start to change as they get older and especially again if they have signs of PPID because their natural resistance to parasites does also go down. You do want to check fecals even on those older horses because you may find that they actually start to need to be dewormed more than they did as a younger animal.”
Additional points to consider
In addition to these main areas of care, Reuss added remaining diligent in regular exams of older horses can help horse owners catch potential problems early.
“In general, getting your hands on your horse and just looking all over them and feeling all of them is important,” she said. “If they are turned out, and it’s winter, and they’re real fuzzy, bring them in at least every couple of days, then feel through their hair to make sure that you’re not feeling changes in their body weight, or muscle, or abrasions, or skin issues, or anything like that.
“Certainly pay attention to their eyes; if you see any squinty, teary, painful-looking eye, that really is a veterinary emergency, regardless of their age,” Reuss added. “Different bacteria and fungus that horses can get in their eyes can progress rapidly, especially if it’s an older horse whose maybe immune system isn’t quite up to par.”
Furthermore, pay attention to a horse’s breathing and respiratory system.
“We certainly start to see more heaves in older horses because they’ve just been repeatedly potentially exposed to different allergens,” she said.
In conclusion, Reuss reiterated that veterinarians can really advocate for the best care of older horses by being proactive and discussing the care of senior horses with horse owners.
“It’s not just because we’re trying to make money off of our horse owners,” she said. “We really should be doing the right thing for our horses.”