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Extension > Agriculture > Livestock > Horse > Horse health > Care of elderly horses

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Care of elderly horses

Julie Wilson, DVM, U of M

Many horses and ponies can live into their 20's or even 30's with good health care. These equine senior citizens play many roles for their owners, providing trustworthy mounts for new riders, children, people with special needs, and as companions to other horses, and their owners. Like people, their health needs shift as their bodies age.

Digestive tract: Dental issues arise as teeth wear out or are lost. Diminished absorptive capacity of the intestinal tract can lead to weight loss or loose manure. A higher likelihood of some types of colic such as small intestine obstruction by a lipoma (fat tumor) requires prompt attention.

Musculoskeletal system: Arthritis of multiple joints may cause stiffness or limit the range of motion with exercise. Laminitis (founder) may occur if the horse develops Cushing's syndrome. Muscle wasting may develop, particularly over the horse's topline.

Immune system: A mild reduction in efficiency of response to microbes leads to increased susceptibility to infections. This vulnerability is significantly greater if the horse develops Cushing's syndrome, which causes high blood levels of cortisol, a hormone which further diminishes the immune system's responsiveness.

Respiratory system: Recurrent airway obstruction (heaves), the horse equivalent of asthma, tends to progress with time, and affected horses may need more active medical and environmental management as they age.

Reproductive system: Fertility in both mares and stallions declines.

Cardiovascular system: Age related changes may impact the heart or blood vessels, leading to heart failure or sudden death if a major vessel ruptures.

Nervous system: Coordination may diminish slightly, resulting in a decline in agility. Arthritic changes in the neck or degeneration of the spinal cord can result in progressive incoordination.

Endocrine system: Abnormal hormone production by the pituitary gland at the base of the brain results in Cushing's syndrome, which is characterized by progressively more severe signs, including poor shedding of winter hair, premature winter coat in the fall, greasy skin, increased thirst and urination, founder, and increased susceptibility to infections.

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