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A study from Tufts University confirms what many horse owners already know: People often tailor their management routines to the needs of their old horses.
For the study, the researchers surveyed 2,879 people who owned or leased at least one horse. The questionnaire collected data on either a single horse or on two---a primary horse that the person interacted with most and a secondary one. Horses older than age 20 were classified as geriatric for study purposes. In addition to asking the age of the horses, the survey included questions designed to explore the depth of emotional attachments, veterinary care decisionmaking processes and experiences surrounding the death of a horse.
“Horses are unique among companion animals because of their long lifespans and, therefore, people often have longterm relationships with their older horses,” says Megan K. Mueller, PhD, of the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. “Coupled with the level of care that horses require, we were interested in looking at how people viewed their older horses, made decisions about veterinary care and coped with the loss of a horse. Understanding these relationships better, we believe, will help veterinarians and other practitioners work with their clients to create treatment/management plans that will work for them.”
Roughly 22 percent of horses that owners considered “primary” were age 20 or older. The median cost of veterinary treatments the prior year for geriatric horses was $600, which did not differ statistically from the median cost for care of younger horses. Not surprisingly, a greater proportion of geriatric horses had undergone dental procedures and evaluation for pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID, “Cushing’s” disease) than did younger horses.
Just over 60 percent of respondents said they had made special accommodations for their older horses, and the majority of those (58 percent) indicated that change was feeding related, such as a switch to a specialty “senior” feed or soaking grain. Other measures mentioned include adjustments to housing (12.4 percent), such as moving a horse to a stall, providing a fan or changing turnout routine.
“It is a balance between what is feasible and what the horse needs,” says Mueller of such changes. “It can be complex to determine what kinds of accommodations are possible and helpful, which just further justifies how understanding the relationship between older horses and their owners is needed to create management plans that are workable for everyone.”
Mueller says she was surprised when the data showed that the level of bereavement over the loss of a geriatric horse was higher when the death was related to a chronic illness rather than an acute trauma.
“This is in contrast to some prior research on dog or cat owners. We don’t know the reasons behind this, but it could be a function of the length of the relationship or possibly the investment of time/resources that owners put into managing a horse with a chronic illness. There is a potential for caregiver burden when managing a pet with a chronic illness. We are actually conducting a study on that right now.”
Reference: “Survey of humanhorse relationships and veterinary care for geriatric horses,” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, August 2018