Thanks to advances in equine veterinary knowledge, technological improvements from the industry, and diligence on the part of horse owners when it comes to good management practices, domestic horses are living beyond their twenties and into their thirties now days. Very occasionally, a horse may even reach forty years of age. Compared to the average 15 to 18 year lifespan of wild equines, it is clear that man’s intervention has increased the lifespan of the domesticated horse. What is not guaranteed however is whether the quality of life for the geriatric horse will remain good into those extended years. Geriatric horses have special needs that must be met in order to ensure that their golden years are happy, healthful, productive, and pain free.
Today’s horse’s lifespan is a little more than one third of the average human’s, meaning a one year old horse is the equivalent of a three year old child; a thirty year old horse has similar age-related issues as a ninety year old person.
Like the geriatric person, the older horse has experienced deteriorative changes in all parts of the body. Arthritic damage in the joints, reduced immune response to disease, dental problems, decreased tolerance to stress, and other age-related changes all leave the older horse more susceptible to illness.
Deteriorative changes are seen as result of a myriad of contributing factors. Wear and tear on joints leads to reduced range of motion, joint pain, and reduced activity. Obesity tolerated as a youth, heavy labor, and exorbitant exercise demands in race and show animals accelerates this degradation. Dietary intolerance, dental disease, and hormonal imbalance may reduce nutritional supplies to the body tissues. Stress from weather changes, harassment by younger horses, and increased frequency of bacterial and parasite infections may all together result in weight loss and an inability to build muscle mass. Poor body condition is a common complaint from owners of geriatric horses.
Despite the “natural” wear and tear, there are elements in all of these processes over which the owner has some considerable control. Two major factors are diet and dental health. Anyone who has cared for a horse into its older years realizes the link that connects the two. Horses are not ruminant animals which are able to process plant material to a great extent within the stomach; therefore, the first stage of digestion is mandatory for all other digestive functions to proceed correctly in the horse. Mastication is the process of chewing and pulverizing food so that its nutritional constituents can be absorbed by the digestive tract. Horses’ teeth continually erupt throughout their lives and are worn down by the mastication process. When tooth wear is irregular, a condition called malocclusion develops which causes discomfort and an interruption in mastication. Food is either rejected or swallowed in large un-chewed boluses causing indigestion and possibly colic. Over-confinement and feeding processed diets, thus denying natural grazing in the pasture to a great extent can accelerate malocclusion formation.
Geriatric horses may have also “outlived their teeth”. At some point, wear exceeds eruption of new tooth enamel, and horses are left chewing with the softer dentin that comprises the inside of the tooth. Geriatric teeth are more prone to irregular wear and fracture. The older horse’s “slower” immune system may also leave it more susceptible to periodontal abscesses.
In lieu of a dental examination by the veterinarian, observation of the horse’s manure may give evidence of a dental problem. Intact grains and large portions of un-chewed hay point to incomplete mastication. A history of mild recurrent colic supports this finding as well. In severe cases, malocclusion and periodontal disease may lead to a condition called Choke. Choke occurs when un-chewed food becomes lodged in the esophagus.
A dental exam should be performed on all horses regularly, but even more often on geriatric animals. The effects of a dental related malnutrition can be devastating in a short period of time. As said before, other age-related issues may cause the geriatric horse to be unable to recover from significant weight-loss.
In order to prevent dental problems, the horse should be allowed to graze as much as possible and have frequent dental exams. Confinement from natural grazing has no benefit whatsoever, and is linked to numerous other husbandry-related health issues.
Gastric ulcers may be more prevalent in older horses, especially those that are suspect for developing Cushing’s disease, a hormonal imbalance caused by a dysfunction of the pituitary gland. Increased levels of cortisol associated with Cushing’s may predispose the stomach lining to erosion by stomach acid and decrease the horse’s immune defense against bacterial overgrowth within the GI tract. Here too, the ulcers are exacerbated by excessive confinement, sporadic feeding, and poor diet.
Geriatric horses should also avoid high-carbohydrate (starch, aka sugar) supplemental feeds, especially if they are diagnosed as having metabolic syndrome (sensitivity to sugars). It is important that older horses are instead fed increased levels of fiber (bran, psyllium) to reduce the chance of ulcers, colic, and other diseases like laminitis (founder). Probiotics may also be of benefit to maintain normal bacterial gut-flora and digestion since older horses are susceptible to bacterial overgrowth in the GI tract.
Older horses can lead happy, productive, and pain free lives if they are given a little special attention when it comes to their care. For the geriatric horse, an ounce of prevention is worth another year of faithful companionship.