What is Aging?
With the advent of improved equine veterinary and dental care, more horses are reaching their senior years than ever. The age at which a horse is labeled elderly can vary considerably, depending on the particular animal’s breed, diet, and previous healthcare. Signs of aging may occur as early as fifteen years of age, while others maintain a youthful appearance well into their twenties. Although aging can affect any of your horse’s biological systems, the most commonly observed signs are related to poorer digestion, reduced immune system, and degeneration of the skeletal system.
There are a number of physical and mental changes that can occur in horses as they age, but with care and consideration they can remain healthier in their golden years.
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Symptoms of Aging in Horses
You can often identify an aging horse by the following signs:
- Diminished eyesight
- Drooping fetlocks
- Droopy lips
- Grey hair
- Loss of muscle mass
- Prominent withers
- Rough coat
- Sunken eyes
- Swayed back
The signs of natural aging in horses like these are often accompanied by additional symptoms due to diseases, like Cushing’s disease or osteoarthritis, that older horses may be more prone to than their younger counterparts.
Horses are not prone to senility, however, loss of hearing, poor eyesight, or chronic pain can lead to behaviors that may be mistaken for mental decline. Elderly horses may be more prone to diseases like Cushing's disease that have been shown to cause a deterioration in mental capability.
Fertility declines slowly in both stallions and mares as they age. Aging can also instigate degeneration in almost every system in the equine body; it can be particularly damaging to the gastrointestinal tract, the joints, and the cardiovascular system. Although the loss of vision and hearing can happen, it is not particularly common in horses.
Causes of Aging in Horses
- Bones and joints - Osteoarthritis is a customary complaint for older horses, as are joint troubles; horses with active lifestyles may be more prone to joint damage in their senior years
- Cardiovascular - Horses can develop thinned blood vessels, clogged blood vessels, and heart murmurs in their senior years
- Digestive system - Not only are the teeth more likely to have wear that makes chewing inefficient, but the walls of the intestine are also thinned as a horse ages, reducing the efficiency of the breakdown of food and increasing the chances of intestinal perforation
- Endocrine system - Changes in the production of hormones can lead to changes in metabolism, reproduction, and calcium levels; the most familiar endocrine disorder in elderly horses is Cushing’s disease
- Vision and hearing - Vision and hearing deficiencies are less prominent in the equine population than the human population; however, fluctuations in the retina, pigment changes, and small areas of opacity due to cataracts may impair the ability to see, particularly in low light
Diagnosis of Aging in Horses
As your horse ages, regular veterinary care becomes more important than ever. The veterinarian will most likely begin the examination with a physical examination, evaluating the horse’s conformation, weight, and temperature, along with checking for any lesions, bruises, or nodules on the skin. They will also listen to the horse’s heart, lungs, and gut to check for any irregularities, such as heart arrhythmias, inflammation of the lungs, or digestive abnormalities. Standard blood tests usually include a complete blood count and a biochemical profile, and a urinalysis will be employed to check for the presence of blood or protein the animal’s urine as well as to evaluate the health of the kidneys.
Dental care is as critical for the elderly horse as it is in younger animals, as problems that are unaddressed may become pronounced quickly. This often leads to the animal having difficulty grinding the food and can lead to a significant amount of food escaping the horse’s mouth as it eats.
Treatment of Aging in Horses
Many things can be adjusted for the older horse to ensure that they have a more comfortable and longer life in their golden years. The diet is often the first thing to change. Elderly horses that have developed problems with their teeth may benefit from a pelleted food designed for senior horses which requires less grinding to process efficiently. Gastrointestinal troubles may prevent the animal from getting enough vitamins and minerals out of the food, and easily digestible supplements may be added to offset any deficiencies.
Joint problems are common and may be addressed in several different ways, which can include specialized shoes, shock-wave therapy, oral anti-inflammatory medications, and even injections of corticosteroids or hyaluronic acid. It is essential for bone and joint health that the senior horse receives at least light exercise on a daily basis. The equine immune system is also diminished in older horses, making them more susceptible to infections and parasitic infestations. This makes regular vaccination and deworming doubly important to keep horses healthy in their senior years. Growths will be evaluated and in some cases, may need to be removed.
Recovery of Aging in Horses
Pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID), an endocrine disease that causes certain portions of the pituitary gland to be overactive, is more commonly referred to as Cushing’s disease. Although it has been known to appear in horses as young as seven years old, the majority of patients develop the disorder when they are closer to nineteen or twenty years of age. Horse afflicted with this disease develop a long shaggy coat that does not shed in the summer months as well as excessive thirst and urination.
Disorders secondary to Cushing’s disease, such as muscle wasting, laminitis, and immune deficiencies, may lead to death if this condition is left untreated. Although not curable, PPID is manageable by reducing the starch and sugar content in the diet and administering the oral medication pergolide on a daily basis to help control the pituitary gland.