Senior Horse Feed: Not Just for Seniors

Here are five situations when a senior feed could benefit a horse, regardless of age.

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Senior horse feeds have now been on the market for more than 20 years and their use has contributed significantly to the extended lifespan horses enjoy today. But the usefulness of senior diets is not limited to horses in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. Senior horse feeds can also be a critical tool in providing nutritional support to horses of all ages that may be affected by a range of medical conditions. High-quality senior horse feeds are highly digestible, and can provide complete and balanced nutrition to horses that could be experiencing health challenges.

Following are five situations when veterinarians should consider recommending a senior horse feed.

Dental abnormalities

Chewing is the first stage of the digestive process. Effective chewing breaks down fibers and grinds grains into a smaller particle size making them more susceptible to acidic and enzymatic digestive processes. Chewing also stimulates saliva production. Saliva contains digestive enzymes and acid buffering agents, and also moistens and lubricates ingesta aiding in bolus formation.

Horses of any age can experience dental abnormalities that result in difficult or inadequate chewing. Malocclusions, missing incisors or molars, and tooth root abscess are just a few dental conditions that could affect the chewing process. Senior feeds were designed to help overcome the dental issues frequently seen in older horses. They are generally nutritionally complete (including adequate fiber to eliminate the necessity of feeding hay or pasture grass), highly digestible, and break down easily to form a mash when mixed with water. All of these attributes can benefit horses of any age with dental abnormalities.

Poor digestive function

Horses could have poor digestive function for many reasons, including age-related dysfunction and medical issues, resulting in bowel inflammation and/or malabsorption/maldigestion. For horses with poor digestive function, it is critical that the diet provided be highly digestible and low in bulk. The goal is to maximize the limited absorptive functionality of the affected intestine, reduce the mechanical load on the tract and minimize mucosal irritation from stemmy fiber.

Recovering from choke

Horses suffering from esophageal obstruction (or choke), regardless of the inciting cause, will experience some degree of mucosal irritation after the obstruction is relieved. A standard recommendation for feeding the post-choke patient is to provide small frequent meals of wetted-down pelleted feed. The consistency and texture of the mash can be tailored to the patient’s need by adjusting the amount of water added.

Recovering from colic surgery

Post-surgical horses require careful reintroduction to feeding but it is a critical step in the recovery process in order to stimulate motility. An appropriate post-surgical diet should be easily digested and low in bulk, which should reduce mechanical stress on the gut. It should also provide as much oral hydration as possible.

Difficulty chewing and/or swallowing

Chewing difficulties aren’t always related to dental condition. Mandibular (lower jaw) or maxillary (upper jaw) fractures, neurologic deficits, tongue injuries, and abnormalities of the pharynx and larynx can all impact a horses’ ability to chew and swallow. In these cases, a senior feed might be most appropriate, as the texture and consistency of the senior feed can be easily tailored to address the intake limitations resulting from the clinical condition of the horse.

Proper nutrition has a significant impact on health and can extend the life of the horse, and veterinarians are a key resource for nutritional information for horse owners. Making nutrition a routine part of your practice will provide you with the experience and confidence needed to guide horse owners in the proper feeding of their horses.  Here are a few easy suggestions for integrating nutrition into equine practice.

  • Take a thorough dietary history. Record the specifics of what each horse is eating each day, including concentrates, forage, pasture and supplements. This information allows the practitioner to assess whether the diet is appropriate, and opens avenues to discuss the management of the patient’s nutrition and body condition. Making nutritional assessment a part of every patient interaction, will allow the veterinarian to gain experience and confidence in making the appropriate dietary recommendations for patients.
  • Assess the patient’s body condition at each visit. Maintaining ideal body condition is critical to joint and metabolic health. Body condition scoring should be included in the minimum database for each patient interaction. Assessing and recording body condition takes only minutes and is as important as taking temperature, pulse, and respiration.
  • Observe the horse eating. When assessing a patient for weight loss, it’s absolutely essential to observe eating behavior as part of the workup. Even brief observation will allow the practitioner to determine if the horse is properly prehending, chewing, and swallowing, thereby providing important diagnostic information.

It has long been recognized that nutrition and health go hand in hand. Taking the time to do a nutritional assessment during visits provides important information about the patients’ management and health. Additionally, it allows veterinarians the opportunity to expand their services to providing nutritional counsel.


Written by:

Katherine K. Williamson, DVM, is the manager of veterinary services for Purina Animal Nutrition.

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