Headshaking Hurts Horses

Headshaking Hurts Horses

Knottenbelt noted that many headshaking cases are seasonal, "which could suggest an allergic disorder similar to human hay fever, but it’s clear that it’s a neurologic disease rather than an allergy.”

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Headshaking is a serious and distressing condition for both horses and their owners.

Derek Knottenbelt, OBE, BVM &S, DVM, Dipl. ECEIM, MRCVS, from the University of Liverpool's Philip Leverhulme Equine Hospital, in England, discussed this condition, its clinical signs, and treatment options at the Australian Veterinary Association’s Annual Conference, held May 25-30 in Perth.

Knottenbelt said the prognosis for headshaker horses is currently very poor: “Investigations of headshaking horses are disappointing as signs can be similar to a range of behavioral and clinical abnormalities.

“Whatever is said about the disease in terms of cause, diagnosis, or treatment, there’s no doubt that horses are very distressed by it," he continued. "Some horses are so badly affected that they can cause themselves serious injuries in an attempt to relieve themselves of the discomfort or pain. There are also major safety implications for riders and handlers of horses.

He noted that many headshaking cases are seasonal, "which could suggest an allergic disorder similar to human hay fever, but it’s clear that it’s a neurologic disease rather than an allergy.”

Some of the common signs of headshaking in horses include:

  • Involuntary up/down movement of the head and sideways shaking of the head;
  • Blinking, ear flicking, or ear flattening;
  • Facial or nasal rubbing;
  • Snorting or serious nasal discharges;
  • Distracted behavior, refusal to move forward, and tail swishing; and
  • Temperament changes, such as dullness and unresponsiveness to riding aids.

“Unfortunately treatment options are presently very limited," Knottenbelt said. "The main objective is for the clinician to try and identify the trigger factors and then for owners to devise strategies to avoid that, where possible. There’s a range of medications such as steroids and antihistamines that have been applied to headshaking cases, but they tend to suppress the trigger factor rather than the condition itself. Some drugs such as carbamazepine and gabba pentin can have a positive effect but are usually impractical for one reason or another.

“While we are far behind in our understanding of this disease and its possible neurological origins, we have to be aware of the welfare implications; research efforts in this area should be a priority,” he concluded.

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