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Mental health in older horses

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  • Mental health in older horses

    We have an older horse (late 20's - early 30's) who has had some physical issues in the last year or so including losing his eyesight (confirmed by vet) but has done fine. We keep our guys on pretty much the same daily schedule so he just goes with the flow and has seemed content. If you didn't know him, you wouldn't know he is blind but we can tell he is mostly listening his way through the day.

    Until the last week - he seems to becoming more confused to the point I am wondering if he is either losing his hearing too or just his mind? I am familiar with old dog dementia - can old horses have dementia too?

    The vet will be out in the next week or two to do spring shots so she can look him over again but was just wondering if anyone else has experienced this with their senior citizen.

  • #2
    I was a nextdoor neighbor to a lady who had an early-30's QH gelding. He started exhibiting signs of dementia-like behavior and finally, come summer-time, he began to quit drinking. He would follow his pasture buddy up to the trough (he was also visually impaired,but not completely blind) but would then just stand there without drinking. If the owner walked out to the pasture with a bucket of water, he'd suck it down. Vet hypothisized that he might've had a heat stroke or something, and would literally forget to drink. He went downhill fairly quickly, and she ended up having to put him down.

    I know I read an article awhile back (maybe on thehorse.com?) that addresses the question of dementia in horses. I think the "offical" answer is no, but older equines can certainly suffer symptoms. I think they just haven't had the money to fund research on older horses' brains to definitively diagnose dementia.
    Last edited by Real Rush; Mar. 20, 2013, 01:06 PM. Reason: spelling

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    • #3
      My 31 year old OTTB definately showed signs of dementia. I likened his behavior to my mom's dementia. Sometimes he just didn't know what was what. As it progressed, from not being able to "find" his companion, to forgetting where he was, to having "selective" hearing, we dealt with it. When he became spooked by the least little thing and became dangerous to lead and I was afraid for his safety and the safety of anyone dealing with him, I finally called it and had him pts. It was sad to watch him decline mentally. I called it "horseheimers".
      "I can explain it to you, but I can't understand it for you..."

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      • Original Poster

        #4
        Thank you - "horseheimers" describes it perfectly!

        As I said, if you didn't know this horse, you wouldn't know he was blind - he got around that well. DD and I started to suspect he had vision problems when we noticed him listening to us instead of looking at us but didn't suspect he was blind until the vet checked his eyes.

        We watch him pretty closely because he has melanomas every where but up to now he has been eating and drinking great and all systems were functioning.

        A couple of weeks ago he had a small abscess and was great about the soaking and wrapping but I noticed he had dropped some weight so we made a few adjustments to his diet. In the last week though he has become more jumpy and out of sync with the routine.

        Comment


        • #5
          The most obvious change that I have seen in aged horses is that they sometimes become very herd bound and/or barn sour. This makes total sense to me because if old horses were to survive in the wild, they could only do so by relying on the herd.

          Another common problem is sleep deprivation. When they get to the point that they cannot get up from the ground easily, they do not get that 15-20 mins of REM sleep that they need and can only get lying down. Ultimately, that leads to "sleep crashing" (commonly mistaken for narcolepsy) but I can't help but wonder whether horses are subject to the same kinds of mental disturbances that people get when they are not getting enough deep sleep? It seems logical.
          "Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain" ~Friedrich Schiller

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          • #6
            I don't see why not, everything else breaks down, why not the brain too? Also, as a poster said above, lack of REM sleep could be giving odd symptoms too.

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            • Original Poster

              #7
              He lives out in a run in but since I am aware of the rem thing, we bring him in every day for about 6 hours of "Nicky" time - he can eat and sleep in a stall without anyone bothering him. He is still getting up and down ok and since its been such a damp, cold winter I have put down straw under the run in so he has somewhere to sleep off the cold ground. Each morning he has straw in his tail so I don't think sleep is an issue.

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              • #8
                One of my best ones had to be put down at the age of 33. At the time, vet reckoned Barry was suffering from congestive heart failure. He was displaying some weird behavior as things declined. Got around all right, had senile cataracts but could still see. I started giving him bran mashes with beer, which he used to love. That last week, he'd stare at his bucket of mash as if it were full of snakes. Took him a while to screw up the courage to begin eating it.

                Horseheimer's disease for sure.

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                • #9
                  My old guy was blind the last 6/7 years of his life, and I even moved him
                  2x during that time. He handled everything well and had always been a
                  laid back sorta guy.

                  The last few weeks, he started to be really reactive about stuff. I put
                  bells on his stall door so no one would startle him going in, and he started
                  to spook & splat if someone went in his stall. He also colicked, something
                  that he had never done in the 18 years that I owned him. He just seemed
                  really out of it mentally. He had quite a few health issues for years that
                  I managed, but up until he started to go downhill he seemed very chipper
                  and happy. I just thought that maybe he'd had enough and lost interest.
                  So rather than putting him through another winter, I had him PTS.

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    My 29 year old mare lost her hearing some years ago, but in the last few years is also showing signs of what seems to be the human equivalent of dementia. She can become easily confused.

                    A month or so ago, we believe she had a mild stroke, but has recovered from that and continues to live comfortably with her 21 year old daughter.
                    www.littlebullrun@aol.com See Little Bull Run's stallions at:
                    "Argosy" - YouTube and "Boleem" - YouTube
                    Boleem @ 1993 National Dressage Symposium - YouTube

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                    • #11
                      We've had many of the "oldest old" here, and I have also observed signs of confusion, forgetfulness, even personality changes like sudden aggressiveness as they approach the end. Sometimes the symptoms are transient, sometimes permanent.

                      It's a good idea to remember that while today we are exhorted not to trust our own observations in the absence of verifiable statistics, a lot of "data" doesn't exist simply because there is no financial motivation to get it. I would not fault anyone for trusting their own perceptions of what they're seeing on this.

                      Comment

                      • Original Poster

                        #12
                        Thank you for the replies - I have dealt with older horses in the past but I guess their physical issues finished them before they ever got to this mental stage.

                        I wish spring would hurry up and give us some nice weather - I think it would help him a lot but I doubt he will be able to handle the heat of summer. I always said he would tell me when he was ready to go and I guess we are nearing that point.

                        I had thought of putting him down before winter, but DD suffers several tragic losses in a very short time in the fall so losing Nicky too would have been more than she could have handled. I made some changes to help him through until she could regroup, and get her college testing and applications done. She knows this is coming, but it will be the first one she has lost so it won't be easy for her.

                        Comment


                        • #13
                          I remember when the just turned 30 year old had his stroke (or whatever). He really did seem to have dementia, couldn't remember his name, didn't care for his treats, went downhill and didn't make it out the year. The old guy is showing his age now. He's quite cheerful but not all there, if you know what I mean.
                          Courageous Weenie Eventer Wannabe
                          Incredible Invisible

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                          • #14
                            I do know that when kidneys start to fail the kidneys cannot clear the toxins out of the body and that causes a lot of mental confusion. It happens in humans for sure and my cat had it before he passed away at the age of 21. My cat stopped drinking and used to howl for no reason in the middle of the night. So some of what we think of as dementia may actually be caused by other physical breakdowns in old age.

                            The personality changes I attribute to both anxiety (due perhaps to diminishing hearing and vision) and to the chronic pains of old age.

                            A stroke would cause physical brain damage.
                            "Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain" ~Friedrich Schiller

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                            • Original Poster

                              #15
                              Interesting, hadn't considered the kidney connection. This all seemed to start when he had the abscess. We had him on 1 bute 1x day along with something to help buffer his stomach - wonder if that tipped his kidneys over the edge too. After 4 days I noticed he looked a bit tucked up when I changed his blankets so we pulled him off the bute and started him on ulcer meds. His bottom line is more relaxed now but that was about the same time the confusion started.

                              Comment


                              • #16
                                It's so sad to see our old friends nearing the end.

                                We have a 27 year old Friesian that is pretty okay, for the most part.
                                He has a problem with choke so we feed him a gruel and no hay.
                                He can lie down (or should that be lay ) to sleep and he takes a couple of naps during the day. At least two of the other horses always stand guard over him while he's sleeping.
                                He's still the boss of the herd and they all defer to him.
                                He does still seem pretty with it. Sometimes when we open the gate to let him in from the pasture he does wander all over the place instead of heading right to the barn and his stall. I always wonder if he is disoriented at those times or just feels like a bit of a walk about.
                                Kanoe Godby
                                www.dyrkgodby.com
                                See, I was raised by wolves and am really behind the 8-ball on diplomatic issue resolution.

                                Comment


                                • #17
                                  One thing that helps these guys a lot when they get to that stage is to manage them with a very set routine. That tends to keep them more confident and not rock their fragile mental "applecart." Use the same stall or feeding station, with the same companions, at the same times of day if at all possible. They tend to get most flustered if they suddenly can't understand what's going on and what they're supposed to do. Also, beware of new companions in the field who might try to haze them; they're just not equipped to handle that at their age. However, gentle playing with other elders is terrific and helps greatly to hold off further physical degeneration by keeping their muscle tone and alertness up.

                                  I used to consider 30-ish "The Last Days," but not necessarily so any longer. I've seen quite a few who with the right management are happy to keep going and going and going! There have been Apps, QH's, at least 4 TB's, and presently a Morgan/QH cross who are a constant inspiration. He is not ditsy in the LEAST, and actually wintered better this year than he has in others past. In our immediate neighborhood, we've had several in the 35-39 range and ponies in their 40's. If they're not in debilitating pain, don't write them off too quick.

                                  Comment


                                  • #18
                                    Originally posted by Lady Eboshi View Post
                                    One thing that helps these guys a lot when they get to that stage is to manage them with a very set routine. That tends to keep them more confident and not rock their fragile mental "applecart." Use the same stall or feeding station, with the same companions, at the same times of day if at all possible. They tend to get most flustered if they suddenly can't understand what's going on and what they're supposed to do. Also, beware of new companions in the field who might try to haze them; they're just not equipped to handle that at their age. However, gentle playing with other elders is terrific and helps greatly to hold off further physical degeneration by keeping their muscle tone and alertness up.
                                    That is what we do with our old guy. He's out all day in a big pasture with his herd. He comes in to his stall and run at night.
                                    He does sort of "play" with the others, mostly it's "bitey face" with the yearling.
                                    I find it heartening to see how the others look out for him yet still let him be the boss.
                                    Kanoe Godby
                                    www.dyrkgodby.com
                                    See, I was raised by wolves and am really behind the 8-ball on diplomatic issue resolution.

                                    Comment


                                    • #19
                                      Originally posted by Eclectic Horseman View Post
                                      The most obvious change that I have seen in aged horses is that they sometimes become very herd bound and/or barn sour. This makes total sense to me because if old horses were to survive in the wild, they could only do so by relying on the herd.

                                      Another common problem is sleep deprivation. When they get to the point that they cannot get up from the ground easily, they do not get that 15-20 mins of REM sleep that they need and can only get lying down. Ultimately, that leads to "sleep crashing" (commonly mistaken for narcolepsy) but I can't help but wonder whether horses are subject to the same kinds of mental disturbances that people get when they are not getting enough deep sleep? It seems logical.
                                      Both points are very true.

                                      We are currently watching our old mare and noting sleep issues. She has recently had some radical personality changes and I have noted her sleep crashing. Only once in the past couple months have I seen her actually lay down, but I'm not exactly sure why as she will get down and roll and seems to have little trouble getting up. But there it is, she's trying to stand, 2 legs are buckling, nose has touched the ground and she either staggers and wakes up, or falls partially down. Sad. We're considering having her euth'd as her personality changes have made her considerably meaner, a trait that normally was not part of who she was. She was always the boss, but always kind about it. Now, she's a erratic and disorganized.

                                      She nearly fell asleep on the farrier, so for her it is becoming pathological. We will miss the old girl. She was a great weanie babysitter.
                                      Practice! Patience! Persistence!
                                      http://www.mariposasporthorses.com/
                                      https://www.facebook.com/MariposaSportHorses/

                                      Comment


                                      • #20
                                        Despite what we see happening, it is comforting to know that people like us treat them tenderly.

                                        After years of "service" and pleasure living with and knowing them as family, it is worth our silent pain of knowing the loss is coming to make that passage more comfortable for them.

                                        Been there more times that I would like to recall. But it's just the right thing to do. I love this thread.
                                        www.littlebullrun@aol.com See Little Bull Run's stallions at:
                                        "Argosy" - YouTube and "Boleem" - YouTube
                                        Boleem @ 1993 National Dressage Symposium - YouTube

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