Caring for Aging and Elderly Horses

Aging is an inevitable fact of life, not only for humans but for long-lived animals such as horses as well. When a horse ages, so too does its body, organs and body systems. Its ability to run and perform the workload that it did in the past becomes greatly diminished. Although aging ultimately ends with death, a well-cared for horse can live well into its twenties and beyond. While physical changes are unavoidable, those caring for older horses can reduce the impact that aging has on them. As a result, horses today are living longer and healthier lives. To ensure the long life of one's horse it is important to understand and follow key factors associated with elderly horse care.

Diet and Health

To meet the changes that are occurring in the bodies of aging and elderly horses, their caregivers must provide them with the appropriate supplements and nutritious feed. While the nutritional needs of horses may vary from one to another, for the most part it is important to choose feed that is of high quality and free of dust and mold that can aggravate certain conditions such as respiratory problems in elderly horses. Feed should also be easily digestible and have an increased amount of fats and soluble carbohydrates. Adding fat to feed not only makes it highly digestible, but it is also a source of needed energy. It can be found in some commercial-grade foods or it may be added. When it comes to vitamins and other nutrients, care must be taken to avoid creating an imbalance that may cause toxicity. To prevent this, avoid giving aging horses large doses of vitamins. Owners may also choose to use commercially balanced feed or supplements that have been formulated for the specific type of feed that is being given to the horse. It is also crucial that horse owners place their aging horses on a parasite control program to prevent parasites which can lessen their ability to absorb nutrients.

Helping horses maintain a proper body weight that is neither over nor underweight is an important consideration for the horse owner. Doing this requires not only a good diet, but also a routine exercise regimen. Weight gain in aging horses can aggravate conditions such as arthritis or may place unnecessary stress on the animal's bones. It is equally important that horse owners pay close attention to any weight loss that may occur as this may be a sign of intestinal or systemic disease. Parasitism or dental disease may also cause a horse to lose weight and care should be sought for these conditions.

Equine Dentition

Poor equine dentition often becomes a problem for horses as they age and can result in a multitude of problems. These problems may be caused by age or injury. Those responsible for elderly horse care should be aware of the signs of dental problems, which include difficulty chewing, weight loss, and/or the presence of grain in the feces. Difficulty chewing may be due to missing teeth, particularly the molars, or it may be due to sharp points that form on the molars. These points typically form on the inner side of the lower molars and on the outside of the upper molars. To prevent problems caused by poor dentition such as poor nutrition, those caring for older horses should have them checked by an equine dentist twice yearly. For horses that have missing teeth or worn down teeth, food may be softened by wetting it down to make it easier for the horse to consume. Reducing the particle size of the feed can also help make it easier to chew and help resolve any lack of nutrition.

Arthritis and Other Conditions Causing Lameness

Lameness is a common problem for aging horses. Often lameness is associated with problems of the hoof or arthritis. Although age often worsens arthritis, it may actually start at any age. Overweight or obese horses may put a strain on their joints and bones that can worsen arthritis. Helping horses maintain a healthy weight may reduce the symptoms associated with it. Supplements for joints may also be useful in helping reduce arthritis symptoms. Proper hoof care of older horses can prevent lameness in some cases. This often becomes lax when a horse is not used as much. Poor nutrient absorption is also a problem that can be helped.

Cushing's Disease and Equine Metabolic Syndrome

Equine metabolic syndrome and Cushing's disease are two metabolic conditions that are commonly found in aging horses. Cushing's disease is a hormonal condition that is often more prevalent in horses once they reach the ages between 19 and 21, although it may occur as early as 7 years old. It is defined as a decrease in the production of dopamine. This decrease causes the pituitary gland to increase in size. As a result, there is an overproduction of Cortisol that comes from the adrenal gland. Horses with equine metabolic syndrome are horses that have developed chronic insulin resistance. Signs associated with it include obesity, a history of laminitis, or accumulated fat in areas of the body known as regional adiposity. Certain horses are more likely to have equine metabolic syndrome. These breeds include Norwegian Fjords, Paso Finos, and Morgans. This can be treated by both managing obesity and eliminating the amount of sugar cubes and other sugar and starch based treats and feeds that the horse consumes.

Written by Sharon Rogers
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