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Keeping the Aging Horse Comfortable

Keeping the Aging Horse Comfortable
By Maureen Blaney Flietner 
Here’s how to manage senior horses’ aging teeth, joints, lungs, and more.
As a kid, I never thought about horses getting “old,” probably because the ones I saw and rode and read about were always so young and active. I didn’t think about the effects of advancing age. So imagine my surprise, decades later, when every horse I owned was living at least into his or her late 20s and even 30s.
My more than 40 years of horse ownership have given me a chance to know them as individuals, to see them grow, to admire their beauty and power, and to learn alongside them. After their careers have come to an end, I have the opportunity to care for my horses as they age, looking after them as best I know how.
But good intent might not be enough for my aging equids or yours, according to 2012 study results based on a survey by Catherine McGowan, BVSc, Dipl. ECEIM, PhD, of the University of Liverpool, in the U.K. In it she notes that owners of horses aged 15 and older who are concerned about their animals’ health, welfare, and quality of life might not be caring for them as well as they think.
Her survey results, collected in her role as head of the equine division and director of veterinary postgraduate education, show that these horses’ (particularly retirees’ in the U.K.) management declines as they age, and they are receiving insufficient preventive health care.
We know the senior horse population is larger than ever, so what can we do to ensure these animals remain healthy and comfortable as they age? How can we prevent or manage potentially painful conditions such as dental disease; joint pain and arthritis; pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID or equine Cushing’s disease); recurrent airway obstruction, now called equine asthma; and eye problems? How can we turn those good intentions into sustained optimal care for our old equine friends in their remaining years? Let’s break it down by topic.
Make Dental Health a Priority
Dental disease is probably the most overlooked and least recognized problem by owners, says Mary Rose Paradis, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVIM (LAIM), associate professor emerita at Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, in North Grafton, Massachusetts.
She recommends having a veterinarian perform a dental examination on your senior horse every six to nine months.  
“In severe dental disease, horses may require a gradual correction of the problem and (owners may need to follow) dietary recommendations,” she says. “Dental changes occur in all older horses because the teeth continue to grind down.” She adds that even if these horses—and their teeth—have had the best care all their lives, their ability to grind forage will eventually diminish. This can lead to problems such as impaction colic.  
Janice Sojka Kritchevsky, VMD, MS, Dipl. ACVIM, a professor of large animal internal medicine at Purdue University, in West Lafayette, Indiana, agrees, noting that “there have been surveys done of (veterinarians caring for) old horses, and teeth problems were found in a large number of the horses examined—although most of the time the owners felt the horse was fine.”  
Among the dental problems older horses face are sharp hooks, points, loose teeth, and diseased roots, including the recently recognized condition equine odontoclastic tooth resorption and hypercementosis, all of which can make chewing painful and difficult.
“An aged horse needs twice-yearly dental inspections with floating or other treatments done if required,” says Kritchevsky. “A speculum, a device with a … type of adjustable headstall designed to hold a horse’s mouth open, should be used so that the entire upper and lower dental arcades can be visualized.”
Some senior horses might have few to no teeth at all, and “the fewer teeth a horse has the harder it is to feed them without choke (esophageal obstruction),” she says. “Often horses choke on poorly chewed forage or grain. They swallow hay that is still in long stems. Those stems catch other feed particles in them like a net, and before long there is a solid clump of feed that the horse cannot move into the stomach on its own. The worse the teeth, the more likely the problem.”
If a horse’s teeth are starting to cause problems and you’ve determined he’s prone to choke, you can make some feeding changes to improve his quality of life, says Kritchevsky. Try slowing down the horse’s eating—as “bolting” feed contributes to choke—by:  
Using a slow feeder (a feeder with slats or grids) or slow feed haynets with small holes or tight mesh so a horse can only eat so much at a time;
Spreading the hay over a large area; or  
Adding good-sized rocks or other objects to the bucket that horses must maneuver around to eat their feed.
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