By Stacey Oke
The pleasures and pitfalls of caring for very old horses
“You can’t help getting older, but you don’t have to get old.” The immortal words of late comedian George Burns might very well apply to our horses. With their elevation in status from work animals to companions, horses’ “average” lifespan has increased dramatically over the past several decades.
“Many horses continue to lead active and productive lives well into their 20s and 30s,” says Jo Ireland, BVMS, PhD, CertAVP(EM), MRCVS, a lecturer in equine practice at the University of Liverpool’s School of Veterinary Science, in Leahurst, U.K.
“Albeit rare, reports of horses living to be 50 do exist.
“While some (owners) focus on age in years, others instead assess their horse’s physiologic age and base aging on functionality and the presence or absence of age-related diseases,” she adds.
Burns’ words of wisdom aside, Ireland attests that horses over 15 years are generally classified as old, whereas those 30 and above are very old. In human medicine, a common term for this population is “late elderly.”
The number of horses surviving 30 years or more is, not surprisingly, small. Current estimates suggest that only 2.2% of all horses and ponies in the U.K., for instance, are over 30.
In this article we’ll review the unique needs of very old horses. We’ll also meet five horses beyond 30 with age-related ailments.
Elderly Horses’ Aches and Pains
To understand how to best support seniors, we first need to learn which body systems mostly commonly develop problems. Catherine McGowan, BVSc, MACVSc, Dipl. EIM, ECEIM, FRCVS, professor and director of the equine division at the University of Liverpool, says clinicians collecting case data at referral centers tend to report acute conditions such as colic, whereas veterinarians conducting field-based studies tend to note more chronic conditions.
Results from British and Australian field studies show the leading causes of morbidity (illness) in horses 15 years and older as:
- Dental abnormalities, including cheek teeth issues, diastemata (gaps between teeth), excessive wear, and focal overgrowths, in 95-96% of examined older horses;
- Dermatological abnormalities such as hypertrichiosis (long wavy coat/failure to shed), skin tumors, and Culicoides (biting midges) hypersensitivity in 40-71%;
- Ophthalmic lesions such as cataracts, vitreous degeneration, and senile retinopathy in 88-94%;
- Cardiac abnormalities, including murmurs, in 25-43%;
- Nasal discharge or breathing abnormalities in 7-22%;
- Lameness in up to 50%, although up to 80% had hoof abnormalities; and
- Pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID) in 2%.
In a separate study Ireland performed exams on horses 30-plus years old to identify leading morbidities in this population. She found that:
- 100% of the horses had dental and ocular abnormalities;
- More than three quarters (77%) were lame; and
- Horses experienced an increased prevalence of dermatological, cardiac, and respiratory abnormalities.
Upon comparing the horses in the 15-plus and over-30 groups, Ireland found that only 10% of the very old horses were overweight, versus 26% of the 15-plus. Fifteen percent were underweight, com- pared to only 4% of the 15-plus horses.
Researchers have shown that owners tend to underreport medical conditions, particularly chronic ones, in their horses. To be fair, many conditions in older horses are difficult to detect without a veterinary exam, particularly dental, ophthalmic, cardiac, and respiratory issues.
Further, in her research McGowan recognized that what owners identify as major medical concerns in older horses does not necessarily match what veterinarians find on their examinations. For example, owners report weight loss/maintaining condition, arthritis and other causes of lameness, and dental care as the most common issues, which only scratch the surface of old horse morbidities.
Now that we know what commonly ails aged equids, let’s meet five super-seniors and learn about the issues they face.
Doug: Battling Dental Disease
Indeed, Doug, a gray 32-year-old Appaloosa, does not walk alone when it comes to dental disorders. Neil Townsend, MSc, BVSc, MRCVS, of Three Counties Equine Hospital, in Gloucestershire, U.K., says most of the dental issues we see in about 95% of geriatric horses stem from normal age-related changes. But they can be aggravated by dietary management and even excessive dental treatment early in life.Click here to see more...