David Pugh, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACT, ACVN, a professor at Auburn University, spoke at the AAEP’s Horseman’s Day on Geriatric Nutrition. He said a geriatric is a horse over 20 years of age. “Just like us when we age, horses have problems,” said Pugh. “Horses’ intestines, eyes, and so on wear out. Because of the care people are providing, the potential exists for a horse to live into its 30s and 40s. I know of one stallion who is 45, and they still collect him!”

As horses age, they either gain weight and are obese or they are thin, he noted. Chronic parasitism throughout life can be a problem in providing proper nutrition to older horses. He said the most common problem he sees are horses which are too thin owned by older people whose kids used to ride and now the horses don’t have the same care.

Older horses can have liver (hepatic) disease. Pugh said researcher Sarah Ralston, VMD, PhD, Dipl. ACVN, of Rutgers University, saw a greater incidence of kidney or bladder stones with overfeeding alfalfa hay to older horses.

Evaluating Older Horses

Pugh said a body condition score tells us a horse’s long-term energy intake. “I want a horse at 5-6 on a 1-9 scale,” he said. “By definition, a 5 is a horse I cannot see the ribs, but I can feel them. Most show horses have a body condition score of 7-8 because we like things fat.”

Weight tapes are fairly accurate if one person uses it consistently, said Pugh. Scales are a luxury. “We weigh all of the horses that come in for breeding at the university,” he said.

Another problem seen in geriatrics is loss of teeth and other dental problems. “We get to the point where we’re having to feed more grain to support weight because of dental problems,” he said.

The most common problem of horses being thin is the owner over-estimating the quality of the horse’s feed. “If an animal is thin, then you’re not feeding enough,” he said.

He added that older animals are more susceptible to diseases. Therefore, veterinarians need to do a complete physical exam, including using a stethoscope and conducting an oral (dental) exam. “Every geriatric needs an oral exam twice a year because of potential molar loss and the potential to lose grinding surface,” said Pugh.

Part if the veterinary exam should be a complete blood count (CBC) and clinical biochemistries. In geriatric, Pugh said, this will help identify kidney, liver, and other problems, such as anemia.

Geriatric Challenges

Chronic laminitis can be a problem in geriatric horses. Grass is the best feed, he said, but added that a type of carbohydrate present in various levels in grass called fructan isn’t good for laminitic horses. (For more see "Cutting Down on Carbs (For Your Horse)".) Horse with pituitary adenomas also should not be pastured on lush grass, he said.

Older horses have harder time responding to influenza and possibly all vaccines. Pugh said research has shown that vitamin C at 10 grams twice a day as a daily feed supplement helped horses respond to vaccines. Some research has shown that giving 800 IU of vitamin E daily might enhance the horse’s immune system. “If I had a chronic infection in a geriatric horse, I might consider giving both supplemental vitamin C and vitamin E,” he said.

Equine geriatrics need regular foot care, Pugh said. Bad feet contribute to the problems of arthritic horses.

He said that geriatrics also need stepped-up parasite control since their immune systems don’t function as well. Geriatrics are more prone to ophthalmic and respiratory problems, and they are less able to tolerate wet, cold, windy, or high humiditiy environments.

If they have chronic pain you can give phenylbutezone (Bute) every now and then so they can get around the pasture, said Pugh. Administration of chrondroitin sulfate and glucosamine products was studied by Reid Hanson, DVM, Dipl. ACVS, assistant professor of surgery and co-director of large animal surgery residency training at Auburn University. He saw improved ability of these horses to move around.

Pugh said housing needs to be safe, hazard-free, and must provide adequate shelter. “The problem I see is neglect by people who aren’t as familiar with horses that are left in their care,” he said.

Feeding Geriatrics

Feed for healthy geriatric horses needs to be easy to chew and swallow. Choke is a major problem. Feed also needs to be very palatable, dust-free, and with enough energy to keep the horse at a body condition score of 5 or better, While older horses need protein, crude protein, levels shouldn’t exceed 12-16% (a big problem is overfeeding protein). Make sure there is enough fiber for normal gut function, with adequate vitamins (vitamin C and B complexes) and minerals to maintain health.

Hay and grass are not the same, he stressed. Grass is 30% dry matter and 70% water. Hay is 10% water and 90% dry matter, and it’s not alive.

A geriatric might need a trace mineral salt. “I like a mineral salt with 10% calcium and 10-12% phosphorus. The problem geriatrics have is a decreased ability to absorb phosphorus. Supplement phosphorus for normal bones and normal usage of energy systems in the body. You also can feed something that helps their ability to digest feed--either a pellet or extruded feed, or add probiotics to enhance digestibility.”

Pugh said you can feed brewer’s yeast at a level of two to four ounces daily.

You might consider adding water to pellets for older horses just to make them easier to chew. Senior feeds supply specific nutrients (increased fat, protein, vitamins, and crude protein). Fat and fiber diets help horses enhance horse performance. However, if the horse has liver disease, don’t feed a lot of fat. You can feed up to one to two cups a day as needed, but build up to that level gradually. He recommended avoiding beet pulp and alfalfa for geriatrics.

Lastly, the ration of calcium to phosphorus should be 1:1.

About the Author

Kimberly S. Brown

Kimberly S. Brown was the Publisher/Editor of The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care from June 2008 to March 2010, and she served in various positions at Blood-Horse Publications since 1980.

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