More and more horses are living to a ripe old age, making gerontology a growing part of equine medicine. However, with age comes not only experience but also certain diseases and conditions, according to the results of a recent study.

"Older horses are at risk for a number of health problems such as pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (equine Cushing’s disease), chronic laminitis, recurrent airway obstruction, cancer, and heart problems," noted Joanne Ireland, BVMS, MRCVS, a research assistant at the University of Liverpool in England, whose recent research, funded by the Horse Trust, focused on disease in the aging horse population.

Although geriatric horses (those 15 years and older) comprise almost 30% of the equine population, there is surprisingly little information describing exactly how many geriatric horses have a clinical–and possibly treatable–disease. As a result, many horse owners might not recognize that their horse could have a health problem and instead could mistakenly attribute disease to the "aging process."

To determine how many aging horses are affected by clinical ailments, Ireland and colleagues randomly chose 200 geriatric horses residing in England and north Wales from a survey of owners of 1,144 geriatric horses in this area. All 200 horses were examined by a veterinarian to identify any physical abnormalities.

Key findings were:

  • Twenty-six percent of horses were overweight, but only 4.5% were underweight;
  • Skin conditions were identified in 71% of horses, including hair coat abnormalities, sarcoids (a type of skin tumor), melanomas, aural plaques (w