One of my favorite clients in the last 12 months has without a doubt also been one of my oldest. This horse/client combination is the best mixture for any veterinarian - a caring, compassionate and committed owner, and a horse with the kindest possible eye.
To protect his identity, I will hear on refer to my favorite Golden Oldie as 'Sam'. In his day, Sam was a fine and successful riding and competition horse who passed through life bringing joy to a multitude of riders, from children to competitive amateur adults and back again. However, as with all things wonderful, his time as a riding horse eventually had to come to an end. My first contact with Sam was when his mum rung me, in tears, desperately seeking a veterinary opinion on her beloved companion for so many years.
Sam had suddenly seemed to hit a wall; he lost so much weight so quickly it looked like a skeleton rather than a horse (though nothing could dim the light in his eyes!), he was lethargic, no longer eating, and dull coated. Not the most positive picture, but being a young and determined veterinarian, I refused to give up on him.
Now looking after your geriatric need NOT be synonymous with financial ruin; yes, in any case when presented with a horse with rapid weight loss, it is easy to jump in and order a whole plethora of diagnostic tests. However I can almost guarantee that many of the results will not yield a satisfactory diagnosis; in situations where there are financial constraints, I instead prefer to take a more hands on approach to managing the situation.
So what steps can you take to help your golden oldie? Below I have outlined my general approach (and please, if your horse is particularly ill these steps might not be appropriate - these are more for the waxing/waning older horse, for whom you want to ensure the best quality of life, but aren't ready to give up on yet:
1. Blood test - without a doubt, the best $100 odd dollars you can spend. It might show NO abnormalities, which is diagnostic in it's own - great, all his organs are working well, let's look at management factors! Alternatively it might give you a very clear indication of what is going on, making decision making a whole lot easier.
2. Equine dentist - people aren't the only ones who lose teeth with age. In Sam's case, an examination by equine dentist revealed that nearly all of his teeth were missing! no wonder he didn't want to eat!! We fixed this by simply grinding his pellets, and boy did he get stuck into them. Make sure you get an experienced professional to perform this exam.
3. Nutrition review - climate, age, work levels, stress factors all play a role in what your horse or pony should be eating. Senior horses, like people, require different nutrients, and one of the most common reasons for senior horse weight loss is a simple CALORIE DEFICIENCY. Easy to deal with!! Equine nutritionists are popping up everywhere - alternatively, contact your local feed company and ask them to make reccommendations as to what you should be feeding.
4. Parasite control - as horses age, people tend to let their parasite control program slide a little. HOwever senior horses are even more susceptible to parasitic invasion!! Make sure you are using a good quality worming paste, alternating brands with the season. All of my golden oldie patients also get a course of Panacur drench, which helps to clean out any encysted larvae in the gut wall (these little guys are immune to your regular worm drench). Also keep an eye out for external parasites - midges, lice, mange all can play havock with your horse's health.
5. Complete and thorough physical exam. Is there anything that could be hurting him? lameness? sounds of sand accumulation in the abdomen? Following the panacur drench all of my golden oldies have a drench with parrafin oil and psyllium husks. This helps to clear out any sand accumulation in the gut and keeps those intestines ticking along. I reccommend feeding 1 cup of psyllium husks per day for 5 days in every month. But no more than that, as after 5-7 days, psyllium can start to have a negative effect on the microbes. Also have a professional listen very closely to the heart and lungs - it makes sense that any abnormalities in these organs cause lethargy, and older horses are just as prone to degenrative change as humans are.
6. Environment and Management - obviously the older horse will feel the cold more, and it is important to give much consideration to his or her living conditions. Provide warmth and shelter from the elements when it's cold; shade and always plenty of water, especially when it's warm. Tend to their feet regularly, brush them, and make sure they live somewhere with reasonably even footing and plenty of resting space.
So that is a basic overview of how I manage my older patients!!! I hope it helps. Whilst some of it seems like common sense, you would be surprised how many patients I see that benefit from changes in these categories. Many older horses can live long and happy lives, and I am pleased to report that Sam responded extremely well to some simple management changes. He is still happily munching away in his paddock (although he leaves the riding to the younger ponies, whilst always keeping a watchful eye on the stable young guns from his favorite spot under the gum tree!)
Dr Kat xoxo
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