Ask the Vet: Older Horses

Answered by, Christine Tuma, DVM, Bull Valley, Illinios
Courtesy of AAEP

Question: We have two retired, much loved horses, a 33-year-old Appaloosa whose sire lived to 40. She has arthritis from too many barrels, and is currently well managed with Bute twice a day. She responds well to gentle ground work and her appetite is normal. The second horse is a Palomino Quarter horse, gelding, now 30. He is healthy, although keeping weight on is his challenge. My question is: what are the indicators that their quality of life is diminished to the degree that I should consider calling the vet?  

Answer: To be honest, I would probably have your equine veterinarian out either way for a couple of reasons:

  1. A thorough physical examination will help identify any additional/underlying health issues as well as any contributing factors.
  2. Typically, animals that are on long term Nsaids, such as Bute, Banamine, etc… need 1-2x/yr bloodwork to further evaluate overall liver and kidney function, since Nsaids are metabolized by the liver and excreted by the kidney, long term use of Nsaids can lead to dysfunction if not used judiciously. Likewise, some baseline senior bloodwork will help to further evaluate horse and identify any additional health concerns or contributing factors.
  3. Working closely with your veterinarian may help to tailor the horse’s pain management protocol. Furthermore, a veterinarian will help determine if the horse may benefit from any neutraceuticals such as joint supplements and/or omega 3,6 fatty acids which when used together not only slow down the progression of Osteoarthritis/Developmental Joint Disease, but also help to drive down the need to medicate for pain/inflammation.

When we talk about quality of life (QoL) issues, we typically look at several parameters:

  1. Ability to ambulate and the presence of pain and/or lameness.
  2. Appetite: can be an early indicator (albeit, non-specific and somewhat subjective parameter) that something is amuck.
  3. Attitude/energy level (changes in, development of new behaviors, presence of depression/lethargy etc..)
  4. Control of bodily functions (defecation, urination, limb placement, etc…
  5. Does the horse still participate in and gain enjoyment from the things they once use to, does the horse still interact with and gain enjoyment from interactions with their owner/family (this, too, may be a subjective parameter, and is also subject to the individual demeanor of the horse)

In general: the owner is going to be the best judge of QoL (based on the aforementioned parameters), since they see the horse everyday, but working closely with the veterinarian can help to identify any deficits in QoL as well as identify any subtle changes that might be present.