At this time of year I find myself having many conversations with clients about what to do for older horses that have a difficult time maintaining their weight during the winter. This is a pretty common problem among horses 18+ years old, and it brings to light the important topic of geriatric horse care. Weight loss is usually the first clue that a horse has reached the golden age where they require a little extra TLC, and indicates that there are changes occurring in the horse’s system that need to be addressed. While there can be numerous causes for both sudden and gradual weight loss in aged horses, the key areas of concern are dentition, nutrition, musculoskeletal problems, internal problems, and environmental factors. It is important to have your horse examined by your veterinarian at the first sign of trouble. A thorough physical exam, dental exam and routine blood work can reveal valuable information needed to correctly manage the situation.
Dental Care: “Well, Doc, the horse seems to be eating the same amount of food but is still losing weight”. This is a story that I hear all too commonly, and the first thing that comes to mind is dental issues. As horses age, so do their teeth. Older horses are often plagued with dental problems ranging from missing or loose teeth, misalignments or malocclusions of the dental arcades, overgrown teeth (steps, hooks, ramps), gingivitis, infected tooth roots – the list goes on. It’s not hard to imagine why these changes would make chewing painful, difficult, and even ineffective. When feed is not chewed correctly before being swallowed, the GI tract cannot extract the nutrients it needs. Weight loss occurs as a result; not because the horse isn’t eating, but because they can’t digest what they are eating. Furthermore, dental problems can make it outright impossible for some horses to eat hay at all, as it puts them at an increased risk for choke. It is therefore important to have your veterinarian monitor and manage dental issues with routine dental exams one to two times per year. Regular dental exams and floating will help to preserve the function of the teeth, maintain comfort, and allow your veterinarian to make appropriate feed recommendations based on what he/she feels your horse can safely eat.
Nutrition: The main goal in feeding senior horses is to supply the essential components of the diet in a form that is easily chewed and digested. This can be done in several ways, but some common options include hay cubes or pellets, beet pulp, and complete feeds. Complete senior feeds are commercially available from several companies, and contain appropriate amounts of vitamins, minerals, fat, protein and fibre in an easily digestible extruded feed. When soaked to form a mash, these feeds are excellent options for horses who can no longer chew hay. Hay cubes are also a great way to supply roughage in a form that is easy to digest, as they are already processed into small particles (therefore requiring less chewing). Non-molasses beet pulp is a safe source of fibre, but care should be taken in older horses due to the high calcium content. (Always remember to soak hay cubes and beet pulp to avoid potential choking hazards.)
Before making any dietary changes, blood work should be assessed to ensure that there are no underlying systemic issues that may be causing weight loss. Based on the results of a physical exam and blood tests, your veterinarian can recommend a specific diet to ensure all your horse’s requirements are being met.
Musculoskeletal Problems: Appetite and weight gain can be negatively impacted by musculoskeletal pain. Arthritis, old injuries, or any form of chronic pain must be identified and appropriately managed if this is contributing to the weight loss. Your veterinarian can discuss and recommend various treatments for chronic lameness, ranging from oral and injectable joint supplements, to long term anti-inflammatories, and alternative treatments such as chiropractic and acupuncture therapy. Daily turnout with appropriate exercise is also important to help prevent stiffness and joint pain.
Internal Problems: Older horses can suffer from several internal problems including parasitism, Cushing’s disease, metabolic syndrome, liver and kidney dysfunction, repeated bouts of colic, and various types of tumours/cancer. Your veterinarian can help to diagnose these issues through bloodwork and specific testing.
Perhaps the most common problem on this list is Cushing’s disease, or pars pituitary intermedia dysfunction (PPID). Some reports suggest that up to 30% of the horse population over the age of 20 have Cushing’s disease. This condition causes increased levels of cortisol in the blood stream which often leads to excessive water intake, excessive sweating, weight and/or muscle loss, laminitis, recurrent skin infections, and long curly hair coats that don’t shed well. Cushing’s disease can be easily tested for and managed with daily medication, and is worthwhile investigating if any of the above signs are observed.
Environmental Factors: Extreme weather conditions, changes in herd dynamics/social status, loss of a companion, and inadequate shelter can also have a big impact on how well older horses maintain their health. It is important to keep an eye out for these problems and recognize that they may have a significant impact on senior horses as opposed to younger horses in the heard.
While at one time they were considered a working animal, these days horses are considered a valued part of the family and are being cared for well into their late twenties and early thirties. We can owe this to the many advances we have made in equine dentistry, nutrition, and specialized geriatric care. By addressing these issues we can ensure our horses are living out their golden years happy and healthy.