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The Geriatric Horse

Question: I have an 18 year old gelding that has generally been an easy keeper but just recently began losing weight.  With winter approaching I really want to do all I can do to help him, what are your recommendations?

Answer: question like this is always hard to answer since there are a variety of reasons an older horse, or any horse for that matter, may begin to lose weight. My first recommendation with cases like these is to have a veterinarian sedate the horse and perform a complete dental exam.  Even if you haven’t noticed the common signs such as difficulty chewing, dropping grain, or head tossing, dental problems always top the list for why a horse could be losing condition.  Unlike humans, horses have hypsodont teeth which have long, well developed roots that continually erupt over time.  This growth is offset by the grinding that occurs when a horse chews so that the portion of the tooth you see above the gum line stays the same height.  Problems occur due to size difference between the upper and lower arcades, the upper being slightly wider which allows sharp points to form on the cheek side of the upper teeth and the tongue side of the lower teeth.  These sharp points over time can wear on the cheeks and tongue causing ulcerations to form.  Larger points called hooks (upper) or ramps (lower) can also form off the back of the last molars causing discomfort as the horse chews.  These problems can generally be controlled with a dental exam and float once a year.  A problem more commonly seen in the mouth of our older horses is wave mouths.  This occurs as one tooth is either lost or fractured or even just worn down allowing the opposite tooth to become longer since it is no longer being ground down by the shortened tooth.  This causes the whole occlusal surface to take on a wave, or S shape, which decreases the effectiveness of the horse’s chewing motion and limits utilization of feed stuffs.  This problem is more difficult to correct and may need to be addressed with a dental float every 6 months.

Parasites are another common reason for a horse to lose weight. While it was previously recommended to deworm your horse several times a year with rotating deworming agents, the AAEP has changed its stance in the last few years and now recommends that a fecal egg count be performed on each horse yearly and an individualized deworming program be created based on the type and amount of parasite eggs that are seen in the manure sample.  The benefits to this method are two fold as it provides a more efficient system targeting the parasites that the horse is shown to have, as well as in many cases saving the owner money as horses that are low shedders can be dewormed less often than the previous system recommended.  This method is also a way to decrease the resistance that we have seen building in equine parasites from the previous overuse of deworming agents.  Management strategies such as not feeding hay on the ground, cleaning turnout pens regularly, and limiting the number of horses per pasture to prevent overgrazing can also help decrease your horse’s exposure to parasites.

If you’ve addressed all of the issues above and they haven’t resolved your weight loss issues, I would recommend having your veterinarian look further with a full physical exam, complete with bloodwork. This bloodwork can help determine if you horse has an underlying infection or anemic condition as well as checking liver and muscle function.  This is also a good time for your vet to look at what you are feeding you horse and make nutritional recommendations.  A fat supplement may be recommended to add more easily digestible calories to their diet or a complete feed may be needed depending on the status of your horse’s teeth and their ability to properly chew and digest roughage.  Hay quality should also be evaluated to be sure that you are providing the most nutritious feed possible for your senior horse.

Due to the increasing ages our equine companions are reaching thanks to the improvements in general management and veterinary care that have occurred over the years, many veterinarians are offering senior wellness packages to their clients in an effort to offset some of the costs accrued with the proper management of older horses. These plans generally include two yearly physicals, annual bloodwork and dental care, vaccines, and fecal exams complete with deworming recommendations.  Most plans are set up so that a small portion of the total cost can be paid monthly making it easier to budget for as well as including built in discounts.