The veterinarians at Palm Beach Equine Clinic take pride in emphasizing the importance of proper care for equine athletes that are aging into their senior years. Advances in equine medicine are enabling horses to perform longer. Last month, we discussed the importance of routine veterinary examinations to ensure top health, appropriate fitness programs to maintain stamina and muscle mass, treatments for physical discomfort, and proper care throughout the hot summer months. This month, we highlight how the evaluation of metabolic and organ function and proper parasite control can benefit the senior horse.
Horses from the ages of 12 and older are considered “senior.” Many horses that are in the prime of their careers are over this threshold and may require extra maintenance in order to continue performing at their best. Maintaining these athletes in peak condition requires teamwork between the owner and their veterinarian.
An important component of physical health in the aging equine is metabolic function. As horses age, they become more prone to develop a metabolic disease known as Cushing’s disease. Cushing’s disease, also known as Pituitary Pars Intermedia Dysfunction (PPID), is when disfunction of the pituitary gland results in increased production of Adrenocorticotrophic Hormone (ACTH), ultimately creating overproduction of the hormone Cortisol. Cortisol is the stress hormone and a surplus of this hormone negatively affects the body.
Veterinarians use the fasting test of ACTH that evaluates the hormone levels to screen for possible Cushing’s disease. This hormone test should be conducted every six months to monitor hormone production.
Cushing’s disease is often detected in older horses between 16 and 23 years of age, but it has been documented in horses as young as eight years old. A few of the clinical signs of Cushing’s disease include change in body conformation such as development of a swayback and pot belly, lethargic attitude, and in some horses the growth of long, “curly” hair with delayed shedding. Horses suffering from Cushing’s disease are at serious risk to develop laminitis without any specific predisposing causes.
Occasionally, horses may have Cushing’s disease without showing any outward clinical signs as the onset is quite slow. A simple blood test will be extremely helpful in the early detection of Cushing’s and other metabolic diseases.
Organ Function and Parasite Control
Blood tests are also necessary to determine whether a horse has anemia (low red blood cells). Serum chemistry testing can evaluate liver and kidney function to ensure these organ systems are working properly. Palm Beach Equine Clinic has the laboratory equipment on site to run the vast majority of these tests for rapid same-day results.
Palm Beach Equine Clinic also suggests a fecal test to evaluate a horse’s internal parasite count. In Florida, the peak worm season is year-round due to the lack of frost. The effectiveness of different dewormers can be measured using a fecal egg count reduction test, which involves performing a fecal egg count before and after deworming a horse. Equine tapeworms are difficult to identify in fecal examinations, so deworming for tapeworms annually with a product containing praziquantel, available in products such as Zimectrin Gold®, Equimax®, and Quest Plus®, is strongly recommended.
Establishing an effective deworming program for equine parasites has become a debated topic as veterinarians have changed their views on worming in recent years. New research has found that a minimal parasite load within the horse’s hind gut is actually helpful in producing a natural immunity. However, it is crucial to control the parasitic load. Due to the emergence of new resistant parasites, the recommended method is to practice proper barn management for prevention and control along with rotational treatment with anthelmintic medications.
Environmental management is imperative to equine parasite control. Veterinarians recommend removing manure from pastures at least twice weekly. Mowing and harrowing pastures regularly will break up manure and expose parasite eggs to the sun. If possible, rotate the use of pastures by providing a period of rest or allowing other livestock to graze them. Grouping horses by age in a pasture can reduce exposure to certain parasites.
Additionally, reducing the number of horses per acre to a minimum can prevent overgrazing and reduce fecal contamination of the grazing area. Owners should consider feeding horses in a feeder for hay and grain rather than on the ground. Lastly, caregivers should routinely groom all horses to remove bot eggs from the hair to prevent possible ingestion.
It is important for owners to consider all of these issues in the senior horse and coordinate with their veterinarian for routine testing in horses 12 years and older. Have questions? Contact your Palm Beach Equine Clinic veterinarian today. Did you miss “Caring For The Senior Performance Horse Part 1?” CLICK HERE to catch up.