Ask the Vet: Senior Wellness Exams

Answered by, .  Lydia Gray, DVM, MA, SmartPak Equine
Courtesy of AAEP

Question: When should you treat cataracts. What is/are the most effective methods of treatment? 

Answer: Cataracts are an opacity or cloudiness of the lens inside the eye. They can be present at birth in foals or develop later in life due to age, trauma, inflammatory eye conditions such as equine recurrent uveitis (moon blindness), or other events.

Owners may notice some of the following signs as their horse’s vision progressively worsens:

  • The normally black pupil (not the cornea) becoming cloudy white
  • Walking into objects
  • Stumbling and tripping
  • An increased amount of head injuries
  • Increased shying, anxiety, and jumpiness
  • A change in head carriage

Note that these observations are not specific to cataracts but could indicate other conditions, and so it is always a good idea to have a veterinarian perform an examination for an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan when you notice things out of the ordinary.

The only treatment for cataracts is surgical removal, and the decision to go this route depends on what you do with your horse, how healthy he is, what caused the cataracts in the first place, and how well you will both tolerate the rather long and intensive aftercare regimen.

Cataracts themselves are generally not painful but the underlying cause may be so it sounds like a visit from your vet is in order to see what’s going on and to discuss your options.

Question: I have a 17-year old Morgan gelding that is sound and in good health. Should I get a wellness exam to establish a baseline for later use should he have issues? I am particularly concerned about metabolic problems that may occur as he ages as I understand the Morgan breed can be prone to have such problems. What would you recommend a wellness exam include for such a horse, e.g., what type of blood tests?  

Answer: You sound like the kind of conscientious horse owner that every veterinarian would love to have as a client! You clearly understand that “prevention is the best medicine” and that breed, age, and other factors can predispose a horse to certain problems.

Morgans are indeed one of the breeds in which Equine Metabolic Syndrome and Cushing’s Disease (PPID or Pituitary Pars Intermedia Dysfunction) do seem to be more prevalent, and the earlier these conditions are diagnosed, the sooner treatment and management can be started to delay progression and prevent complications such as laminitis.

The best place to start is with an annual physical examination by your regular veterinarian. This visit should include not just a hands-on assessment of your gelding’s current overall health, but also a dental exam, a discussion about parasite control, and body condition scoring as part of an overall nutritional evaluation. Administration of vaccines appropriate for your horse’s lifestyle and lifestage may also be a component.

This wellness visit would be a great time to bring up your concerns about your horse’s predisposing factors (age and breed) for two common metabolic and endocrine conditions and ask what specific tests would be appropriate at this time. While general bloodwork such as a CBC (complete blood cell count) and serum chemistry can be useful, certain protocols have been specially developed to identify horses in the early stages of metabolic and endocrine disease, when standard testing is typically unable to detect a difference.