Thanks to advances in veterinary medical technology, today’s horses are living longer and more comfortable lives than horses in the past. However in order to make use of that technology, owners must first be able to detect when there’s something not quite right with their animals–especially with geriatric horses. As a team of British researchers recently discovered, some important medical conditions are being overlooked by some owners and caretakers of geriatric horses.

Previous research by Joanne Ireland, BVMS, MRCVS, a research assistant at the University of Liverpool in England, funded by the Horse Trust, found that most horses aged 15 years or older have at least one health problem.

"It is the horse owner’s or caretaker’s responsibility to recognize disease and seek a veterinarian’s assistance when required," Ireland said. "However, some owners attribute the clinical signs of disease to the normal aging process or may not recognize the significance of certain health problems."

To determine how frequently owners recognize clinical problems in geriatric horses, Ireland’s randomly selected 200 geriatric horses throughout the northwest and midlands of England Northern Wales. A veterinarian examined each horse, and the researchers questioned owners regarding their perception of their horses’ health.

"We found that owners underreported many conditions and had not reported many clinical signs of disease that were detected at veterinary examination," noted Ireland.

For example, veterinarians diagnosed dental abnormalities in 95.4% of geriatric horses, but only 24.5% of owners reported that their horse had a dental problem. Likewise, veterinarians detected hoof abnormalities in 80% of senior horses examined, but only by 27% of the owners had detected a problem.

Compared to veterinary-assessed body condition scoring, owners tended to report horses in good/ideal condition as underweight and misclassify overweight horses as in good condition. Other conditions examined and underreported in this study included cardiac murmurs, lameness, and respiratory disease.

"Failing to identify health problems in geriatric horses may prolong the time until the horse is examined and treated by a veterinarian," concluded Ireland. "Improved owner education in the care of aging horses is likely to improve identification of disease in geriatric horses. In turn, this will help reduce welfare issues as well."

Owners of geriatric horses should consult with their veterinarians to ensure their equine seniors are receiving proper treatment or care for the medical conditions they might possess. Additionally, owners with concerns that their horse (senior or otherwise) has developed an ailment are encourage to seek veterinary advice.

The study, "Comparison of owner-reported health problems with veterinary assessment of geriatric horses in the United Kingdom," will be published in an upcoming edition of the Equine Veterinary Journal. The abstract is available on PubMed.