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Caring for the Senior Performance Horse, Part Two

Palm Beach Equine Clinic emphasizes the importance of proper care for our equine athletes as horses age into their senior years and advances in equine medicine are enabling horses to perform longer at their specific careers.

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 would like to continue this discussion by highlighting the evaluation of metabolic function, organ function, and proper parasite control in the senior horse.

Horses from the ages of 12 and older are considered “seniors”. Many horses that are in the prime of their careers are considered “seniors” and may require extra maintenance in order to continue performing at their best. To maintain these athletes in peak condition requires a little more work on the owner’s part with the help of their veterinarian. Preemptive attention for your aging athlete’s needs will keep your equine partner performing longer.

An important component to physical health within the aging equine is metabolic function. As horses age, they are more prone to develop a metabolic disease known as Cushing’s disease. Cushing’s disease, also known as Pituitary Pars Intermedia Dysfunction (PPID), is a dysfunction of the pituitary gland increasing the production of Adrenocorticotrophic Hormone (ACTH) ultimately resulting in an overproduction of the hormone Cortisol. Cortisol is the stress hormone and a surplus of this hormone effects the body negatively. 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, especially in horse’s currently battling the disease.

Cushing’s disease is often detected in older horses typically between 16 to 23 years of age, but it has been documented in horses as young as 8 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. Additional blood tests can also be evaluated to determine whether your horse has anemia (low red blood cells). Serum chemistry testing can evaluate liver and kidney function to insure 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 strongly suggests a fecal test to evaluate your 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 your horse. Equine tapeworms are also difficult to identify in fecal examinations. Deworming for tapeworms is strongly recommended annually with a product containing praziquantel, available in products such as Zimectrin Gold®, Equimax®, and Quest Plus®.

Establishing an effective deworming program for equine parasites has become an open topic for discussion on which method is most effective. Veterinarians have changed their views on worming in recent years, noting that 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 adding proper barn management for prevention and control to routine rotational treatment with anthelmintic medications. Environmental management is imperative to equine parasite control. Veterinarians recommend removing manure in the pasture 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 reducing 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. For parasite control, contact your Palm Beach Equine Clinic veterinarian and he/she will provide you with specific parasite control protocol recommendations.

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. For more information on caring for your senior horse, please contact Palm Beach Equine Clinic at (561) 793-1599.

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