It never ceases to amaze us how similar horses are to humans. At Oak Haven Acres, we are blessed to love and care for our equine residents and observe their habits each day. It’s no wonder that humans and horses share a bond that spans centuries. Although they don’t speak our language, horses have a unique way of communicating with their human friends. Of these similarities, health conditions are most fascinating. I recently had an opportunity to talk to a specialist in equine gerontology. Since many of the horses on our ranch are seniors, we are always interested in current equine medical information and techniques. I learned about several topics that I wanted to share with our friends and clients, namely equine dementia.
Most families have been touched by the icy hand of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease. It’s heartbreaking to watch loved ones slowly forget everyone and everything in their lives. Dementia has been called the long goodbye. Did you know that this devastating disorder also afflicts senior horses?
Horses With Alzheimer’s Disease
Since some of our horses at the ranch are rescues, we can only estimate their age by their teeth and other features. Equine specialists say that horses usually live into their early twenties. However, advances in veterinarian science and medicine have allowed a few horses to live well into their thirties, with quality of life.
Maybe some of our undocumented horses have been that old, and we don’t know. But through the years, we have noticed that senior equine health conditions often mirror those of elderly humans. We discussed joint pain, nutritional issues, and other common maladies during this conversation. It was the topic of equine dementia that caught my attention.
The cause of dementia disorders like Alzheimer’s disease remains a mystery to medical science. Researchers who have studied the brains of dementia patients have found plaque and tell-tale lesions. They also know that these disorders gradually destroy brain cells, resulting in memory loss, frailty, and eventual death. Research in equine dementia is still preliminary, but specialists have noted the same brain lesions and plaque in horses as their human counterparts.
What Causes Dementia
Do you have an equine friend that is getting into his golden years? While you pay close attention to his nutrition and general health concerns, watch for signs and symptoms of dementia. These red flags are almost identical to the ones in humans, although they are more subtle. Having a close relationship with your horse will make you aware that he isn’t acting like himself.
If you’ve handled your horse for a while, you see his everyday patterns, and he knows you as his friend. A horse with dementia will act confused when you come near as if you are a stranger. You may also notice that he seems bewildered in the stable and his familiar pastures. He may be anxious and may trot in circles with frustration.
Since such memory loss and confusion are often symptoms of other serious equine disorders, you must talk to your vet as soon as possible. It’s especially true if the condition arises suddenly, unlike progressive dementia. Your horse could be suffering from encephalitis, a dangerous brain disease.
Senior horses with dementia often exhibit gradual changes in their personalities, just like human dementia patients do. The four-footed friend that was once a gentle soul can become withdrawn, sullen, and even aggressive toward you. While he always enjoyed being your horseback riding partner, he may forget the feel of a saddle and might react in fear and aggression. Maybe he no longer remembers his equine companions or the bliss of running through the open pastures.
An Improved Diet Can Help
Changes in eating and drinking habits are also concerns for a horse with dementia. Because the disease attacks brain cells and diminishes memory, he will no longer recognize his food, water, or feeding rituals. Although he experiences hunger and thirst, he doesn’t know how to resolve them. Your vet can advise you about the nutritional needs of your horse diagnosed with dementia.
How do you deal with this deplorable condition? First, keep regular communication with your vet and report any changes or concerns about your horse. If your equine companion becomes aggressive toward his fellow horses, you should consider placing him in a separate stall. It’s a new normal that can be difficult to fathom.
Unfortunately, there remains no cure for equine dementia, as there’s none for humans. All you can do for your beloved companion is to keep him safe and comfortable. Although he may no longer recognize you, you still know him. He needs you now more than ever to be aware of his needs and to love and support him.
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Our vet specialist recommended keeping a strict schedule with your horse for comfort and assurance. You will need to gently prompt him to eat and drink each day and lead him back and forth from the stable. Be extra loving and cautious when you groom him because the familiar is now a threat and a mystery.
Remember that the bond between you and your horse is forever, even when dementia has taken his memories. His brain may not recognize you, but his heart always will. Providing intense veterinarian care and your continued love can make the most of his remaining time with you. As always, Oak Haven Acres is there to assist you and your horse in the senior years. Our veterinarian looks for signs and symptoms of dementia and can help during this challenging time.