Senior Horse Health

Overview

The needs of horses change as they age. They thrive in a less stressful environment in which they have more time each day to rest. As they age, it becomes more difficult for them to adjust to change, so consistent routines are important. Health problems can develop over time so maintaining good health is a major goal in caring for the senior horse.

Routine Care

  • Dental Care: Older horses should have their teeth checked at least once a year by the veterinarian. As horses age, their teeth develop sharp points, the molar grooves become worn down, and in advanced age they start losing teeth. All of these issues can lead to difficulty in chewing. Dental disease is a significant cause of weight loss  and is a predisposing factor for intestinal obstruction and choke in the senior horse.
  • Intestinal Parasite Control: Intestinal parasites live in the same environment as the horse and they use the horse's intestines as part of their life cycle. As horses age, the parasites do more damage because the intestines are less resilient. Intestinal parasitism is another leading cause of weight loss in the elderly horse, so routine deworming is important.
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  • Monitoring Weight and Body Condition: The weight and condition of the senior horse should be assessed on a regular basis (every 6-8 weeks). Horses who are overweight or underweight are at risk of developing diseases. When weight trends are discovered early, gradual changes can be made in feeding to maintain an optimal healthy weight.
  • Skin Care: Regular grooming of the older horse is desirable. Brushing removes dirt, dead skin, and matted/loose hair. Grooming stimulates the secretion of natural oils which keeps the skin healthy and resilient. A thorough grooming also allows the caretaker to examine the skin closely for minor cuts, infections, and masses.
  • Hoof Care: It is best for retired horses to go barefoot. A discussion with your horse's farrier about making this transition is worthwhile. Once senior horses are acclimated to going barefoot, they still need to have their hooves trimmed, but usually less frequently.

Diseases of the Older Horse

  • Weight Loss:  Weight loss is common as horses reach old age. It is often due to dental disease or intestinal parasitism. Elderly horses in a herd may not be able to compete for food and consume less. Underlying diseases (liver, kidney, cardiac, hormonal, metabolic syndromes, and cancer) can lead to weight loss. If dental disease, parasitism, behavioral issues, and underlying diseases are ruled out, weight loss is usually attributed to an aging gastrointestinal tract that absorbs nutrients less efficiently. Sometimes this trend can be attenuated with changes in diet.
  • Colic: The two most common causes of colic in the older horse is large intestinal obstructions and strangulating small intestinal lipomas. Large intestinal obstructions are often due to impaction resulting from too much undigested fiber reaching the colon (usually a result of dental disease) and insufficient water intake. Obese horses are prone to forming lipomas (fatty tumors) in the abdominal cavity. These tumors are attached by a stalk and sometimes they wrap around the small intestines causing acute obstruction.
  • Musculoskeletal Diseases: Arthritis is a common problem in the older horse. Allowing horses to live in pastures will often alleviate the painful symptoms of arthritis because constant movement keeps joints loose and flexible. Laminitis is another common problem that often develops in older horses with Cushing's disease and in certain breeds that are predisposed to the disorder.
  • ​Hormonal Diseases: Cushing's disease is the most common hormonal disease of the older horse. It results from pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction. Signs of Cushing's disease include: long hair coat, weight loss, muscle wasting, lethargy, increased water consumption, increased  urination, laminitis, and a predisposition to infections. Diabetes mellitus is sometimes seen in older obese horses, and can develop in horses with Cushing's disease. Both disorders can be diagnosed by the veterinarian and treatment options are available.
  • Other: Diseases of the kidney, liver and heart can develop in the older horse, but are not common. Occasionally horses will develop cancer in older age, especially cancers involving the skin and mucous membranes. The three most common cancers in horses are: Sarcoids, squamous cell carcinomas and melanomas.