A very interesting research study about disease rates in older horses and ponies was published in the peer-reviewed Equine Veterinary Journal last year. 200 horses and ponies of 15 years or older were given a veterinary clinical examination by a single researcher.
Horses and ponies aged 15 years or older – described as ‘geriatric’ – make up 25-29% of the UK horse population, and it is possible that owners may ‘under recognise health problems by failing to attribute clinical signs to disease’. They may instead just put them down to the horse or pony being old, which could defer useful treatment and compromise welfare.
Results included the following:
- 26% were overweight (BCS >3/5) and 4.5% were underweight (BCS <2/5)
- 71% had a skin complaint and 22% had excess hair or abnormal moulting
- 58.5% had cataracts
- 20% had heart murmers
- 18.5% had a nasal discharge and 22% had respiratory abnormalities
- 18.6% were lame on at least one limb
- 50.5% were lame at trot
- 83.5% had a reduction in range of motion in at least one joint
- 80% had hoof abnormalities
- 95.4% had dental abnormalities
The study was carried out in the summer, which the authors felt could explain the higher level of obesity compared to previous geriatric groups studied. The authors proposed that the lack of exercise older horses receive might also increase their risk of obesity.
Over 20% of the horses and ponies had excessive hair growth (hirsutism), which is strongly associated with pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID) also known as Cushing’s syndrome.
Clinical signs of respiratory disease were common and almost a quarter of all the horses and ponies had abnormal respiratory sounds at rest (when listed to with a stethoscope). The risk of recurrent airway obstruction (RAO, previously called COPD) possibly increases with age.
Musculoskeletal disorders were common, and may be due to many years of athletic activity, perhaps affected by poor conformation.
The most common disorder was with the teeth, which is not surprising in an older population of equids. Failure to recognise and treat these problems could be an important welfare concern for the older horse. Many cases of weight loss and older horses and ponies who are underweight are due to dental problems.
The authors stated that describing the most prevalent conditions in older horses and ponies might help owners recognise them, and allow ‘targeted health care programmes and further identification of risk factors’, leading to better veterinary care, owner understanding and welfare for the horses and ponies.
Being more aware of health problems that can be treated and also helped with dietary adjustments and additions would help owners improve the welfare of their older horses and ponies.
Reference: Ireland, J. L. et al, (2012) Disease prevalence in geriatric horses in the United Kingdom: Veterinary clinical assessment of 200 cases. Equine Veterinary Journal, 44(1); 101-106.