The average lifespan for a domestic horse is now roughly 25 years, but many horses are living well into their 30s. Advances in veterinary medicine, nutrition and education are helping horse owners enjoy their equine companions for longer than ever before. Longer lifespans do not necessarily mean that horses are aging more slowly; they are staying old longer. Caring for geriatric horses presents a new set of challenges. Cognitive health is an area that is often overlooked as part of the normal aging process.
Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (CDS) is a degenerative disease that affects most animals including humans, which we call dementia, senility or Alzheimer’s disease. CDS is recognized by changes in a horse’s behavior. Horses who normally recognize what time they are turned out or when dinner is served, have difficulty keeping track of their usual routine. As the disease progresses you may notice changes in your horses’ personality and interest in work. Some horses stare into space, wander aimlessly, get lost in familiar surroundings or spook more easily.
The physical changes in the brain that cause cognitive decline are not well understood, but researchers believe changes in mental function are related to an increase in free radicals or a decrease in vascularization. Veterinarians know a lot more about how cognitive dysfunction syndrome affects dogs and how to treat it than they do about horses, but much of the research is transferrable.
Be cautious if you do notice these behavioral changes in your horse because often times similar symptoms can be caused by other conditions such as arthritis, infections, metabolic diseases, ulcers or even cancer. It is always important to see your veterinarian if you have any concerns about your horses’ health because your vet can examine your horse and run bloodwork to confirm that there is not an underlying problem.
Some drug therapies are available for dogs with Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome, but there is little data on their use in horses. Prevention is always the best plan. Providing your horse with a healthy diet that is rich in antioxidants and omega 3 fatty acids will help keep your horse healthy. Enrichment activities and training will also help keep your horses’ minds sharp. Horses suffering from dementia will often feel anxious from their confusion so calming supplements or pheromones may be beneficial to help them relax. Most importantly, our senior horses need our love and compassion because they have given us a lifetime of joy.