Feeding Senior Horses

A horse that is kept healthy and disease-free in its younger years has the potential to live well into its 20s and 30s, stated David Pugh, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACT, ACVN, of Fort Dodge Animal Health in his presentation on feeding the geriatric horse at the 2007 American Association of Equine Practitioners Convention, held Dec. 1-5 in Orlando, Fla. In the senior horse routine medical management should be implemented, including parasite control, dentistry, and dietary modifications to accommodate existing problems. Dental disease is a common problem in aged horses, so the teeth should be checked at least twice yearly to minimize the risk of choke and to avoid weight loss. Pelleted mashes and slurries supplemented with high-fat supplements can be offered to geriatric horses with poor dentition or missing teeth. If an older horse is able to maintain good body condition on a regular maintenance diet, then no extra supplementation should be necessary. Some aged horses require "safe" feeding areas to avoid herd competition, especially if afflicted with arthritis or failing eyesight.

Pugh noted that nutrition for aging horses and young, growing horses is similar in the protein and energy needed to support their metabolism. An old horse might not digest dietary fiber efficiently, and he also might need a higher (12-14 %) protein intake due to lessened protein digestibility because of age. It is important to ensure adequate intake of specific amino acids, such as lysine and threonine. In many cases, including alfalfa in the diet helps to limit loss of muscle mass and weight. A high-fat supplement (vegetable oil and/or rice bran) is useful to provide calories, as are beet pulp mashes or pelleted feed. Pugh recommends that concentrates be restricted to no more than 0.5% of body weight per feeding, as, for example, a 1,000-pound horse should not receive more than 5 pounds of concentrate at a meal.

Body condition might be difficult to maintain in some older horses due to inadequate intake of feed, poor digestive capacity, dental disease, metabolic disease, endocrine disease, or infection. A complete physical exam and blood work should be performed on a geriatric horse to rule out existing problems. Before protein is increased, it is important to examine liver and kidney function. In general, dietary calcium should be kept below 1% due to the potential for kidney stones in aged horses, thus, the use of alfalfa must be considered carefully. In these cases increased protein needs might be provided with soybean meal. A horse with kidney disease should receive less than 8% protein and will do best on grass hay supplemented with fat and/or corn oil if more calories are needed. Digestion of phosphorus seems to decline with age, and it is valuable to monitor the calcium to phosphorus ratios. A horse with liver disease (based on blood chemistries) should not be fed a high-fat or high-protein diet, and that horse might benefit from vitamin B supplementation.

Support of a geriatric horse's immune system could be helped by supplemental vitamin C and vitamin E, along with maintaining a good body condition score. Pituitary adenomas (benign tumors in glandular tissue) and/or obesity elicit glucose intolerance and insulin resistance, making feeding of such individuals a real challenge. If a horse requires additional calories and does not have a liver concern, these are best offered as high-fat supplements.

About the Author

Nancy S. Loving, DVM

Nancy S. Loving, DVM, owns Loving Equine Clinic in Boulder, Colorado, and has a special interest in managing the care of sport horses. Her recent book, All Horse Systems Go, is a comprehensive veterinary care and conditioning resource in full color that covers all facets of horse care (available at Shop.TheHorse.com or by calling 800/582-5604). She has also authored the books Go the Distance as a resource for endurance horse owners, Conformation and Performance, and First Aid for Horse and Rider in addition to many veterinary articles for both horse owner and professional audiences.

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