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“Me and My Dog” – working together to eradicate rabies

[caption id="attachment_4069" align="aligncenter" width="500"]Pete with his own dog, Kiko Pete with his own dog, Kiko[/caption] Most dog owners adore their pets, and "pet selfies" are a popular way of expressing the joy of the bond between human and animal. A new campaign by a charity is using pet selfies to drive forwards an important goal: the global eradication of rabies. The concept is simple. Take a selfie of yourself with your pet, then upload it to the charity website. When you reach the uploading page, you'll be asked if you want to make a donation: even a couple of pounds will do. The idea is to make this a viral campaign: if enough people do this, the charity will raise a game-changing sum of money, and the goal of rabies eradication will be a step closer. There's an irony to the idea of "dog and owner" pictures being used to counter rabies: 99% of human cases of rabies are caused by dog bites. If it wasn't for the close relationship between humans and dogs, rabies wouldn't be an issue. The fact is that rabies is a big issue: over 150 people die of the disease every day, mostly in Africa and Asia. Scientists have worked out how to eradicate rabies. If 70% of all dogs in an area are vaccinated once against rabies, the disease dwindles and disappears. They've done it in South America over the past thirty years. In 1983, Latin America committed to mass dog vaccination: dog rabies cases in the region declined from a peak of 25,000 in 1977 to just 196 in 2011, and human cases fell by 96 per cent to only 15 across the whole continent. The aim of the Global Alliance for Rabies Control is to achieve the same levels of success in Africa and Asia. While it sounds simple to vaccinate 70% of the dogs in an area, it's difficult to do this in practice, on the ground, in real-life situations. A level of systematic organisation is necessary and in many parts of the world, it's difficult to make dog vaccination a high enough priority for this to happen. But although it's difficult, it's not impossible. Every year, more than 15 million people worldwide receive a post-exposure rabies vaccination, after being bitten by a dog, to prevent the disease – this is estimated to prevent hundreds of thousands of rabies deaths annually. This includes millions of people in Asia and Africa, and it's a fact that may contain the seed of an answer to the problem. It's much more costly to give post-exposure vaccination to a human than to give a one-off vaccine to a dog. If some of the funds used for human treatments could be diverted to vaccinate dogs, this would make it much easier to reach the goal of 70% vaccine coverage. If this was achieved, there would no longer be the same need for post-exposure vaccination: money spent would translate to money saved. On the ground, it's difficult to move funds around like this: human health departments fund the human vaccinations, whereas animal health departments pay for dog vaccines. Under the new concept of "One Health", it's recognised that human and animal health are closely intertwined. The human and animal health departments should be talking to each other, and funds should be easily transferred between them for projects like rabies control. Unfortunately, due to tradition and human issues of control, it isn't easy to make this happen. The Global Alliance for Rabies Control is doing its best to achieve this type of change, and the good news is that you can help them today. Go to this website: https://meandmydog.rabiesalliance.org/ and scroll down. You'll see a blue box that says 'Share' and if you click on 'choose file', it will automatically launch a window that will allow you to select a photo from your computer. You and your dog may only make a small difference, but if we all do it, we and our dogs together may be enough to change the world. Our generation can eradicate rabies and wouldn't it be fitting if our own dogs joined us in that goal?
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Caring for your new rabbit – essentials for proper bunny welfare

Did the Easter bunny come this year?  Not the imaginary kind that drops off chocolate, the real kind that lives for 10 years or more and deserves to have a better life than being trapped in a hutch at the bottom of the garden.  If they did, or you are thinking of getting one, here’s my guide on how to care for them.

Diet

The majority of problems that vets see in rabbits are related to an inadequate diet.  So, if you get their food right, you will give your pet the best chance of a healthy life!

The mainstay of a rabbit’s diet should be hay and every day they should eat a pile as big as they are. Rabbits have teeth that are constantly growing and chewing on hay keeps them in good shape.  One of the most common issues for rabbits is sharp, overgrown teeth that can be so painful they stop eating altogether. Hay is also vital for healthy digestion, particularly important in rabbits for whom diarrhoea can be fatal.

Rabbits should also have a handful of fresh food everyday and a small amount (a tablespoon at most) of hard, pelleted food.  Avoid the museli mixes as these allow your pet to pick out their favourites and become short on vital vitamins.  For the majority of their day, your rabbits bowl should be empty (just like a dog or cat!), so they only have their hay to nibble on.

Vaccinations

All rabbits should be vaccinated annually against Myxomatosis and Viral Haemorrhagic Disease (VHD).  These are both fatal and vaccination is the only protection.  The injections can be given from 8 weeks of age.  This visit to the surgery is also an opportunity for your vet to ensure your new pet is healthy and for you to ask any questions.

Neutering

Having your rabbit neutered is very important.  Females should be spayed when they are around 6 months and males can be castrated from 4 months.  Entire rabbits can be grumpy, prone to biting and often urine spray, so not great pets!  Also, 80% of entire female rabbits will develop uterine cancer in later life.

Training and handling

Rabbits are prey animals, so they are naturally nervous.  This can mean they can be flighty and startle easily.   As soon as you get your new rabbit, work with them to gain their confidence.  Sit on the floor with them, offer treats, encouragement and try to get them to come to you.  Don't pick them up until they are used to you and always handle them calmly but firmly.

Also, rabbits should never be kept alone.  For a social animal, solitary confinement is akin to torture.  Neutered pairs of the opposite sex work best and they can be bonded in later life, if they have previously lived alone.

Parasites

The most common parasite in rabbits is a fur mite. It causes flaky, itchy skin and is easily treated with veterinary ´spot-on´ drops. They can also get fleas, just like dogs and cats, and again these are easily treated with veterinary products.  They can also suffer from internal parasites (worms) but they are not common.

Fly Strike

Fly strike is a horrific, and often deadly, problem.  It develops when flies lay their eggs on the dirty fur around a rabbit’s backend.  These develop into maggots which burrow into the rabbit’s flesh, causing huge pain and damage, often within just a few hours.  This is why all rabbits should be handled and checked at least twice daily and there are preventative treatments available from your vets.

Pet Insurance

There are now several companies which provide insurance policies for rabbits and it is something all rabbit owners should consider.

Rabbit are entertaining, inquisitive and rewarding but they do need the similar levels of care and attention as other pets.  They are not the low maintenance, children’s pet  many people think they are.  Hopefully this article has helped you if you do have a bun and if it has inspired you to own one, get in touch your local rescue, they always have rabbits needing loving homes!

Cat Henstridge BVSc MRCVS - Read more of her blogs at www.catthevet.com

If you have any worries about your rabbit or any pet, please make an appointment with your vet, or try our Symptom Guide.

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Ask a vet online – ‘How imperative is having the annual booster jabs for cat flu/ Felv/ Fiv/ Leukemia?’

Question from Jakkii Mickle: Feline question again- how imperative is having the annual booster jabs for cat flu/ Felv/ Fiv/ Leukemia ? If they have had these injections from kitten age- would they have built up a natural immunity ? One of my cats reacts very badly to these injections, so as a result, I decided not to have them immunised - also my mums dog developed canine leukemia as a result of the injection programme ( confirmed by vets )-- so what is best- assume they have their own immunity , or risk them catching these horrible ailments ? Or make them ill by injecting them....??? Answer from Shanika Winters MRCVS, Online Vet Hi Jakkii and thank you for your interesting question about cat vaccinations. In order to answer your question I will discuss what is in the feline vaccines, what immunity is and how vaccines work. What diseases are covered in my cat’s vaccine? Commonly found in the vaccine your vet will offer your cat is protection against feline influenza (cat flu), feline infectious enteritis (viruses affecting the gut) and feline leukaemia (FeLV).  Other feline vaccines available but less commonly given include rabies, Bordatella bronchiseptica (airway disease) and Chlamydia.  There is currently no vaccine against feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV). What is immunity? The immune system is the way in which the body detects, reacts and fights off anything it encounters. The immune system is made up of white blood cells (and the substances they produce such as antibodies) and the lymph system (nodules of various size from tonsils through to parts of the spleen).  When the body meets an antigen (something like a virus of bacteria) for the first time certain white blood cells notice the antigen and set off a reaction in the immune system which leads to the development of immunity. Certain white blood cells produce antibodies that recognise and attach to the antigen, other white blood cells come along and help destroy the recognised antigen and some white blood cells keep a memory of the antigen so next time it is met it can be fought off quickly. Once immunity has developed to an antigen the body should be able to fight it off before it can cause illness. Immunity does tend to slowly decrease over time, the longer it has been since an antigen was last met the slower the body is to react to it. This is why booster vaccines are given each year to keep the level of immunity topped up. Vaccines and naturally being exposed to an antigen stimulate the immune system in the same way to help develop immunity, but vaccines contain antigen that has been treated so as to minimise the chance of developing the actual disease in the process.  The time intervals designed for each vaccine regime are based on research as to how long the immunity levels remain in the average cat. Generally the antigens in cat vaccines are either a small part of the antigen, an artificially produced version (that is less able to cause disease) or a killed version of the antigen.  This is all done so as to provide immunity with the least risk of your cat actually getting ill. Why does my cat react badly to the vaccine? After vaccination some animals feel mildly unwell or can have a slightly raised body temperature, but this is not common. It is also possible for some cats to react badly to some vaccines and develop a full infection. The other thing that cats can react badly to is ingredients in the vaccine most commonly the adjuvant.  Animals that are unwell at the time of vaccination or have an underlying disease can also have bad reactions to vaccines.  This is a large part of why it is important for your pet to have a full health check prior to vaccination.  In the case of your mum’s dog developing leukaemia as a result of vaccinations this is very rare. The adjuvant is a chemical added to the vaccine to help the cat’s body react more to killed and part antigen components as these would otherwise cause less stimulation of the immune system.  If as is the case with your cat there is a sever bad reaction to vaccination then this should be discussed with your vet, noted on your cats medical records and an attempt made to work out what it is that your cat is reacting to. Should I still have my cat vaccinated if it reacts badly? After careful consideration it might be that your cat could tolerate the vaccines if given separately or if a different form of antigen or adjuvant was in the vaccine used.  After many years of vaccination your cat will have developed a reasonable level of immunity but it is very hard to work out exactly how long this will last if annual vaccination is stopped. In conclusion the decision as to whether or not to have your cat vaccinated every year should be made between you and your vet weighing up the chance of your cat being exposed to various diseases against the severity of its reaction.  I hope that this answer has helped you and your cat. Shanika Winters MRCVS (online vet)
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Dog Vaccinations: are they really necessary?

Tomorrow is World Veterinary Day (WVD), an annual event that highlights the role of veterinary profession around the world. This year's theme is the importance of vaccination to animal health. Over the past two hundred years, scientists have created vaccines that have prevented - and, in some cases, eradicated - diseases in humans and animals. Yet if you talk to pet owners online, the question of the need to vaccinate is one that keeps cropping up. People worry that vaccines may even be causing illnesses, and sadly, they sometimes feel that they cannot trust the advice from their vet, because the vet benefits financially from the sale of the vaccine. There is a danger here that pet owners may stop vaccinating their pets, and if they do, it's likely that they will get away with doing so for a number of years. Vaccines have caused serious illnesses to become rare, so that there may not be an immediate threat to most pets. The problem is that if people choose not to vaccinate, there will be a growing population of unprotected animals that are vulnerable to viral disease if an epidemic does occur. It's useful to compare the situation with measles in humans. Before the introduction of measles vaccination in the UK in 1968, about half a million people caught measles each year of whom about 100 died. The introduction of the MMR vaccine in 1988 led to a dramatic reduction in measles, with only two human deaths from the disease in the past twenty years. False claims in the late 1990's that MMR could cause autism led many parents to refuse to vaccinate their children. Vaccine rates dropped and there are now up to two million young people who remain unvaccinated: they are at risk of the disease. This is not just theoretical: an outbreak of measles is currently happening in Wales, with over eight hundred confirmed cases including over eighty patients being treated in hospital. The first death happened last week, when a twenty five year old man passed away. As one official said, "Measles is a serious, horrible disease. We need to get rid of it." The sad truth is that we know how to get rid of it: vaccinations, which have been proven to be safe and effective. Public health officials are now running large scale measles vaccine clinics to protect people who missed out on childhood vaccination, but there are still worries that the proportion of unvaccinated people may be so high that the current measles outbreak will spread to elsewhere in the UK, with further deaths. There have been similar false claims about dangers associated with vaccinations in the pet world, and as a result, there is a risk of the gradual development of a large unvaccinated population of pets. This would create the potential for an outbreak of one of the nasty viral diseases of pets in a similar way to the human measles situation. It is true that there is a low incidence of adverse reactions to vaccines. Like humans who feel a little under the weather after some vaccines, pets can suffer mild signs of illness as their immune system reacts to the vaccine. This is part of the same immune reaction that causes the body to produce antibodies against the virus, so it's nothing to worry about. More serious adverse reactions, such as allergic or autoimmune diseases, do happen, but they are exceptionally rare. Overall, the reported incidence of any type of problem is less than one in five thousand; the risk of a serious reaction is much lower than this. The aspect of dog vaccines that seems to worry owners most is the traditional model of "once yearly boosters". People don't understand why this is necessary, when in humans, childhood vaccines often confer lifetime immunity. Why do pets need so many vaccines? The answer to this is complicated: when vaccine regimes were first devised, back in the 1970's,  there was a high mortality rate from diseases like Parvovirus and Distemper. Duration of immunity after vaccines had not been clearly established, and the safest option was the once yearly booster. In recent years, more studies have been done, with many vaccines now promising immunity for three to five years for some diseases after the annual booster at fifteen months of age. In the face of this changing information about vaccines, the challenge for vets has been to recommend a reduced vaccine schedule while still ensuring that no vulnerable animals slip through the loop. Much as pet owners may appreciate the opportunity to go to the vet less often, if even one animal died of a preventable viral disease, vets would feel that they had failed. The veterinary profession has tackled this on a global scale, by setting up expert groups, using independent scientists to assess the evidence and to provide guidelines for the vaccination of pets. A simple set of recommendations have now been issued to vets across the world by the World Small Animal Veterinary Association, and these offer the safest approach to pet owners. You can read them for yourself online by clicking here. Vaccines are now classified as "core" and "non-core". Core vaccines include those which all animals need to receive, which means Distemper, Hepatitis and Parvovirus for dogs. Non-core vaccines are those that are required by only those animals whose geographical location, local environment or lifestyle places them at risk. Examples include Leptospirosis, Kennel Cough and Rabies, although the prevalence of rats in many parts of the UK  is so high that many people would regard Leptospirosis as a core vaccine in this country. The aim of the veterinary profession is to vaccinate every animal with core vaccines and to vaccinate at-risk individuals against non-core vaccines if they are seen to be at risk. The WSAVA guidelines also address the recommended frequency of vaccination: for the main core vaccines, after puppy shots followed by a booster at fifteen months of age, it's now regarded as safe to repeat the vaccine every three years. If dogs need to be protected against certain other illnesses- including Leptospirosis and Kennel Cough - immunological studies have demonstrated that once yearly vaccines are still needed. This can all become over-complicated for the average pet owner, which is why it's still recommended that the safest answer is a once yearly health check by your vet. The vet will review your pet's health and lifestyle, and will then only give the vaccines which are judged to be necessary. In the United Kingdom, for most dogs, the recommendation is likely to be a once yearly vaccine against Leptospirosis, with a booster against Distemper, Hepatitis and Parvovirus every three years. Other vaccines, such as Kennel Cough and Rabies, may also need to be given, depending on the dog's activities. There is plenty more to discuss on this subject, including widely-disseminated but unproven claims that over-vaccination is the cause of a wide spectrum of illnesses in the dog world. Perhaps that's a subject for another blog.
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Horses and money – is it really either/or?

With the new financial year, and the recent bad weather, everyone involved in and working with horses is trying to make money go a bit further. Among other issues, the cost of medicines is rising every month (many drugs have seen their manufacturers put the price up 10 or 15% in the last few months), and feed bills are rising due to poor cereal harvests. As a result, I've put together a list of "top tips" for saving money in the coming year. Firstly, 5 things to do... 1) Make sure you worm smart - which doesn't necessarily mean often! Many owners still worm religiously every 6-8 weeks; however, recent studies have shown about that 80% of the worms are in 20% of the horses. If your horse doesn't have a high worm burden, it may be a waste of money pouring expensive wormers down him every other month. In addition, the more wormers we use, the higher the risk of worm resistance - there has been recognised round- or redworm resistance to every active ingredient available in the UK, so the less we use them, the longer they'll be effective. The way I like to recommend people go forward is to use Worm Egg Counts - your vet will be able to do these, or will have a lab they send them away to. The test simply takes a faeces sample and counts the worm eggs in it, giving you a good estimate of the number of worms in the horse. Remember, this test can only be done in the warmer months (the worms don't lay eggs in the winter!), and it only tests for nematodes (round and redworms). To test for tapeworms, your vet will need to take a blood sample, but this usually only needs doing once or at most twice a year. Depending on the test results, your vet will be able to advise you on the best worming strategy, and if you've got a low burden, it may not be necessary to worm at all, as long as your pasture management (poo-picking etc) is decent. I've seen horses wormed every month come back with such low counts that we stopped worming completely and, because they weren't mixing with lots of other horses, they were still worm free a year later. That said, I've also seen horses that really do need that regular dose, so it does depend on the yard, the herd and the individual horse. 2) Consider warming up with unaffiliated competitions - and beware direct debits! Skip past this one if you're not competing - but if you are, it may be possible to affiliate part way through the season, saving money by starting with cheaper unaffiliated events. How much you save depends on your sport, and your area (down here in Devon and Cornwall, unaffiliated events are are usually perhaps half to three quarters as much as an affiliated event), but at the very least you save the up-front cost of affiliation and membership. That said, you can't decide to cancel your affiliation if you've got a Direct Debit set up to automatcally renew it (as my brother found out this year, when he accidentally rejoined BE...!) 3) Buy medicines online. This is a fairly new area, and can be controversial. However, without any doubt you can save money on prescription drugs if you buy them from a reputable online pharmacy or dispensary. If your horse needs a prescription medicine, your vet is legally obliged to give you a written prescription if you ask for it (although they will normally charge an administration fee). In general, you can get the same medicines online for about half to two thirds the price. However, its important to make sure you deal with a reputable company: as a rule of thumb, if they don't ask for a prescription, or they're not based in the UK, don't touch them. In addition, you should check to see who is in charge of dispensing the medicines at that company - if they're legit, they'll be able to tell you the name and registration number of the pharmacist or vet who is responsible. Having worked in this sector, there are four companies I've dealt with who I would consider safe and reliable to buy from (AniMed Direct, MedicAnimal, MyVetMeds and VioVet), but that doesn't mean that there aren't other good ones out there. Bear in mind as well that a few companies change their prices through the day, and also make sure that the price includes VAT - if in doubt, phone them up and ask! Although it seems like a hassle, for long-term medication (like bute or Prascend) or really expensive drugs (like Gastrogard), you can make a massive saving buying online. 4) Shop around for insurance... It may be you can get a better deal from a different company! However, before you change, make sure that your level of cover won't be affected, and remember that you are legally obliged to disclose any relevant medical history. There are a couple of very bad insurers out there, and some fantastic ones, so do your research before changing - a company with a really cheap premium but who won't pay out when needed are a false economy. The other option is to cancel your insurance, and then set aside some money each month in a separate acount to cover vets bills. Do your sums first, but if you've got several horses it can save money to do it this way, and there's no worry about exclusions or wondering if they're going to pay out. 5) Does your horse NEED all those vaccines? Tetanus is a genuine life-saver. However, not every horse needs every other vaccine. If they're not competing, not mixing with other horses much and aren't on a big yard, its worth talking to your vet about flu vaccine, and if they're not breeding stock either, herpes vaccine probably isn't worth it. 6) If you have any health concerns about your horse - phone your vet! Most practice do not charge for a phonecall, and your vet will be able to advise you as to whether you need a visit, and if there's any treatment or first aid you can give. Beware of consulting "Dr Google" - its an easy way to scare yourself, because for some reason, Google always lists the most serious and rare diseases first. If you do want to check out your horse's symptoms online before calling your vet, I'd advise you to use the VetHelpDirect Symptom Checker - but talking to your vet is likely to be even more reliable! I once had a client call to arrange a visit for us to "sew up her mare after foaling". We thought that she meant the mare had torn a bit, but it turned out that she thought the foal was going to come bursting out of the mare's side like a alien parasite, and she was delighted when we were able to tell her that she didn't need to spend the £50 for an evening visit as long as the foaling went well... So, thats your things to do, now five things to watch out for: 1) DON'T skimp on Preventative Health. Tetanus vaccination is a genuine life-saver, and regular, routine dental care will save money in the long run. I once had to spend five hours basically repairing an 11 year old stallion's mouth because he'd never had any teeth rasped and the hooks had overgrown so much that one day he couldn't open his mouth enough to chew. For the previous six months the owners had been pouring expensive concentrates into this pony to try and get the weight back on, but it was due to his inability to chew properly. If they'd kept up to date with routine dental care, it would have saved them a lot of money, effort and time! 2) Be cautious with cheap paraprofessionals. There are a lot of horse dentists, chiropracters, massagers, physios and assorted back people out there. Many of them are very good, some aren't, and a few are downright dangerous. However, it isn't immediately obvious which is which... There are a couple of things to bear in mind when you're calling someone out. Firstly, it is a criminal offence for anyone who isn't a vet to diagnose a medical problem in a horse (with limited exceptions in the case of farriers dealing with a hoof problem, and BAEDT qualified dentists dealing with dental overgrowths). This means that your insurance policy will be invalidated if they make a diagnosis and act on it; it also means that in law you have no comeback if something goes wrong. In addition, if you allow anyone except a vet to prescribe or dispense a prescription only medicine to your horse (e.g. a dentist giving sedatives), you're both breaking the law. Remember too, even qualified physios technically need a referral from your vet before they're permitted to work on your horse. Secondly, it isn't necessarily a money saving technique to call in a paraprofessional. I remember seeing one client who had spent nearly a thousand pounds on physios, back people, chiropracters and alternative therapists, all of whom had given her a different diagnosis of her poorly performing pony. When my colleague was called out, she realised immediately that the horse was lame, and dug out an abscess from her nearside hind hoof. The horse was right as rain two days later - all for the princely sum of £48 plus a packet of animalintex. Thats not to say there isn't a place for paraprofessionals - BAEDT dentists, farriers, qualified physios and some other practtioners can be great to work with and bring a horse right again, but it needs to be a team exercise, as we all bring our different skills and expertise to the case. 3) DON'T buy ultra-cheap feed and fodder. Cheap, poor quality hay and haylage are never a good place to save money - if you're lucky, you're horse will need to eat more to maintain condition, and if you're unlucky, they'll suffer lung and sinus problems from spores, and possibly even listeria infection from bad haylage. 4) Be cautious about chopping and changing vets - many people use one vet for vaccines and another for out-of-hours and emergencies, or stud work. Sometimes this can save you money, but it can also lead to problems - a client of mine (who also used two other local vets) nearly lost one of her broodmares to a bad reaction to penicillin. It turned out that one of the vets had noted that the horse had reacted once before, but because they didn't know she was using the other practices, they didn't know to tell us. Fortunately in this case the mare survived, but it just goes to highlight the necessity for good communication. If you are going to use more than one practice, make sure that everyone knows who's involved and who's doing what, so that we can share notes if needed. Better still, make up your mind who you want to treat your horses, so they can provide continuity of care. Keeping horses is, by its very nature, expensive. However, with care and forethought, you can make the money stretch a bit further, even as the prices are going up.
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Looking after the Older Horse

When I was training as a vet, a 20 year old horse was considered really quite old. Now, however, I regularly find myself working with healthy horses in their late twenties and thirties - even a few that go on into their forties! That said, horses don't age uniformly - one may be sprightly and fit at 30, while her paddock mate is really feeling his age at 20, so there's a lot of variation. The challenge is maintaining them at the best quality of life for as long as possible. To do so, we need to consider three things: • Work and exercise • Preventative health (worming, dental care etc) • Disease management and medication I'll deal with these in sequence, although really they are of course all interconnected. Work and Exercise PerryI'd like to introduce Perry, a horse I've known for many, many years. Born in 1986, by 2002 Perry was a successful Eventer, competing on the Affiliated circuit, and usually well up in the places. However, by then he was starting to slow up a bit, and his then-owner decided it was time to reduce his workload. He was struggling in particular with the dressage and show jumping, so they sold him on to a friend of mine as a Pony Club horse for Tetrathlon. All he had to do was carry his (fairly novice) rider round a cross country course - the phase he enjoyed the most anyway. Relieved of the need to work in an outline, or in collection, he flourished at Tetrathlon, going on to compete at the National Championships. Of course, in time, his low-grade arthritis (which I'll talk about more later) meant that he was struggling with the cross country requirements, and he moved into a semi-retirement as a hack. He'd seen it all, done it all, and was as close to 100% in traffic, tractors and low flying aircraft as any horse could be. For most horses, as long as they can work, they want to - generally (and there are always exceptions!), it isn't in a horse's best interests to take him out of work one day and retire him to a field. A gradual wind-down over several years is kinder, and helps to keep him interested and alert. So, by changing career, Perry had an extra five years of competition, and then many more years of useful work - simply because his various owners were wise enough not to over face him, but to play to his strengths. Preventative Health I've talked before about the importance of regular dental work - in the older horse, it is doubly important. As the horse ages, his teeth undergo a number of changes. Although it appears that teeth grow constantly, that is in fact an illusion - the adult teeth are pretty much a fixed length, but most of the tooth is hidden away within the gums (the reserve crown). As the tooth is worn down by chewing, more of this reserve is extruded (which is, by the way, the basis of ageing horses by dentition). However, sooner or later, this reserve is expended, and the teeth "cup out", becoming small, loosely held, concave structures, of limited use for chewing. Good, regular dental care can help delay the onset, and can help the horse to manage as the teeth cup out. Remember, as long as there are a few pairs of teeth in occlusion (i.e. Facing each other), the horse can still chew, he'll just be very slow about it! In my experience, teeth generally start to cup out about 30-35 years of age, but it depends on their dental history - more use and wear and tear means the teeth are ground down faster. Worming is also inceasingly important in the older horse, simply because although they may have higher immunity to worms (this is still debated, but does seem likely), they also have less reserves to cope if they have a heavy infestation. The spring is a particularly risky time, as sometimes large numbers of small redworms can emerge all at once, causing massive gut wall damage. It is important to make sure that at some point over the winter, you use a wormer that is active against hibernating (hypobiotic) worm larvae - currently, the only wormers on the market that have this activity are a full 5 day course of Panacur, and (reportedly) Equest. Foot care is always important, as older horses can suffer some terrible hoof capsule problems if left untreated. I always recommend that people keep up vaccinating their horses, even if they're not competing or going out. Equine influenza probably isn't essential in a stay-at-home horse or pony (although they can still contract it if they're in contact with a younger friend who does go out and do), but Tetanus vaccination is essential. Just because a horse is old doesn't mean you can stop vaccinating, because tetanus kills horses of any age just as easily. It's also a really useful opportunity to have a general "MOT" and get your vet to check the horse over thoroughly, to detect and problems before they become too serious. Disease Management Although many horses lead a long and healthy life, the probability is that as they enter old age, they will suffer from one or more "chronic diseases". These are generally low-level conditions, and in the older horse are usually manageable rather than curable. Probably the most common are arthritis and Cushing's disease, but malabsorbtion diseases and some tumours aren't that uncommon either. The key factor is managing the disease in such a way that the horse doesn't suffer from the symptoms, and is able to keep up as much work as possible, for as long as possible. Arthritis is perhaps the commonest condition of older horses, and those that aren't so old. In most cases, it is due to simple wear and tear on the joint surfaces. The harder a horse has worked, the more rapid the onset of arthritic changes. It's often the case that, initially, a horse will have trouble working in an outline, and perhaps with show jumps, but hacking and cross country, with it's more open jumping style, is less of a problem. This of course was exactly the case with Perry. Managing arthritis is a lot more than just monitoring exercise, however - nowadays, we no longer need to just accept "a bit of stiffness" in the older horse. It's often best to use several different strategies. I generally recommend a combination of joint supplementation (feed supplements such as Cosequin and Newmarket Joint Supplement are the most popular, while injectables like Adequan are more expensive but possibly more effective) with analgesics (bute and/or Danilon, usually) as required. Although painkillers like bute don't address the underlying disease, they reduce the inflammation and associated pain. Although there can be side effects, it really isn't fair to put a horse through the pain and discomfort of arthritis without some pain relief; if side effects are a particular concern, Danilon has a much lower risk, although it seems to be a little less effective. Its usually best to start out using bute only as required, and then build up the dose as necessary. Perry, for example, started using bute about 10 years ago, but just a sachet or so immediately after a competition. As he's got older, he uses more, and at the moment he's on an average of 4-5 sachets a week - enough to keep him comfortable (and galloping round his paddock like a yearling!). Cushing's disease (hyperadrenocorticism) is most common in older horses, and is caused by a micro-tumour in the pituitary gland. This results in an excess of circulating cortisol (a stress hormone), that causes the characteristic symptoms of abnormal fat pads (typically over the eyes and as saddle-packs), excessive drinking and urination, and increasing susceptibility to minor infections and laminitis. Ironically, the "classic" shaggy coat of the Cushingoid horse isn't entirely due to cortisol - the presence of a tumour in the pituitary causes a malfunction in the part of the brain that controls body temperature, causing retention of a winter coat for longer. Cushing's isn't curable in horses, but symptoms can be partially controlled by management (regular clipping, diet and exercise control and remedial shoeing), or largely eliminated with some medications - Cyproheptadine (Periactin) may be of some use; however, Pergolide (Prascend) is highly effective, and is licensed for the treatment of Cushing's. Gut problems of one sort or another are also more common in older horses - these may be malabsorbtion issues, caused by thickening of the gut wall, or an increased susceptibility to colic. This may be due to a diffuse Lymphoma (a cancer of the white blood cells) which is the commonest tumour of older horses. In these cases, the key is to feed a highly digestible, high feed value ration, possibly with a probiotic to enhance digestion. Tooth loss is also a problem in the older horse - as I discussed earlier, eventually the teeth "cup out", at which point there's little more that can be done, dentally. The next phase is that the tooth falls out, leaving naked gums. I remember once doing a regular tooth rasping on a 38 year old mare - I put a hand in to have a feel around, and four teeth fell out in my palm... (she actually did better once the teeth were out than she had in months!). An edentulous (toothless) horse needs a soft, ultra-high fibre diet; typically a mash made from fibre pellets or pencils. Horses can live healthily for quite some time on such a diet - however, once your horse has reached this stage, it is probably time to consider how long you can fairly keep him going. If you can stay on top of all these points, you have every chance of keeping your older horse going for a long, healthy life - as Perry has had, and indeed continues to have. If you are worried about any symptoms your horse or pony is showing, please talk to your vet or check how urgent the problem may be by using our Interactive Equine Symptom Guide written by expert equine vets.
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