How to assess your senior horses quality of life and know when its time to let go
Owning senior horses is a blessing and a curse. Youve enjoyed many years of partnership, built a strong bond, and share a mutual trust. On the other hand, you have to manage things like aging joints and worn-out teeth. Theres also that one pretty significant curse: Horses dont live forever, and every owner knows he or she will eventually have to say that final goodbye.
Sometimes the horse makes the choice for us, going on his own, without prolonged suffering. Other times its a decision were forced to makea severe colic or an irreparable injury that necessitates euthanasia. But in many cases owners must make decisions that arent black and white. When is it right to keep going, managing a few age-related health issues, and when is the most humane option to end his chronic pain and suffering?
We asked two veterinarians how owners can monitor their aging equids welfare and make end-of-life decisions.
Quality of life is a complex and sometimes difficult-to-evaluate concept.
For a good quality of life, horses should have adequate shelter, food, water, be treated with kindness, and be free of pain and disease, says Janice E. Kritchevsky, VMD, MS, a professor of large animal internal medicine at the Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine, in West Lafayette, Indiana. Because horses are herd animals, they should have companionship. A horse all by itself could probably check most of the welfare boxes, but Im not sure you could ever say a single herd animal is happy.
Liz Arbittier, VMD, an assistant professor of clinical equine field service at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicines New Bolton Center, in Kennett Square, cites the American Association of Equine Practitioners guidelines to help determine whether a horse still has a decent quality of life. A horse should not have to:
However, look at the last point, and then think about all of the horses out there that happily live on a gram of Bute (the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug [NSAID] phenylbutazone) for years with no adverse effects, she says. While they certainly can have problems related to chronic NSAID use (e.g., gastric ulcers, kidney issues)and this step should not be taken without consulting your veterinarianso many horses live comfortable and happy lives with some medical assistance. If the horse requires an excessive dose of NSAIDs to live a comfortable retired life, that may be a different story.
Like everything with horses, it comes down to each situation, which is why its important to work with a team to ensure seniors remain healthy as they age.
On the most basic level, Kritchevsky says, a horse with a good quality of life should interact with the owner, other people, and horses. They should move out, at least at a walk, willingly and have a good appetite. Finally, they should not have a chronic disease condition such as equine asthma, lameness, or (gastrointestinal) upset that cannot be managed. If these are present, one can assume that the quality of life is diminished.
Old age isnt a disease, Kritchevsky says. Horses, like people, are very individual, and some horses are old at 17 while others are young at 27.
So age alone doesnt diminish a horses quality of life. Heres more on the various disease processes that do. Thisarticle continues in the October 2020 issue ofThe Horse: Your Guide to Equine Health Care. Subscribe now and get an immediate download of the issue to continue reading. Current magazine subscribers can access the digital edition here.
Senior Horses and Living the Good Life The Horse - TheHorse.com
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