Whether you're a first-time horse owner or an experienced equine expert, it's important to be well read on the common health issues that horses can develop. Being well informed is the best defense against serious health conditions. Most of the issues described in this article are easily preventable and can be treated quickly if found early on. Always keep a close eye on your horse, and never hesitate to take them to a vet if you suspect something is off.
Common Health Issues For Horses
Rainscald is a skin condition in horses caused by prolonged contact between their hide and moisture. The result is patchy hair loss along the affected areas, typically a horse's back. Lesions, sores, and matted hair can also be symptoms of rainscald.
Rainscald is a common issue in horses for two reasons. The first is that they are usually outside, in all weather conditions. Even if they are not directly in the way of things like rain, humidity can cause a horse's hair to become unusually moist. Sweat from hot weather can also lead to rainscald.
Another common cause is improper turncoats wear. This means that a turncoat is either left on for too long or doesn't provide the horse with the necessary amount of ventilation. You can prevent a horse from developing rainscald by ensuring that they're always wearing proper turncoats for an appropriate amount of time and that they always have access to cover from the elements.
Mud fever is a blanket term for a variety of skin infections that generally occur on a horse's lower legs. The medical name for mud fever is pastern dermatitis, though it goes by many names, including greasy heels and cracked heels. The bacteria that is generally responsible for this infection is dermatophilus congolensis.
This bacteria latches onto your horse's skin, usually lying dormant for extended periods of time until it becomes damp. Once it's come into contact with moisture, it begins to spread through spores, creating a large area of infection from its original starting point.
Mud fever as the name suggests is usually the result of horses standing in damp environments, like a muddy ground, for prolonged periods of time. It can also be caused by not drying a horse properly after washing their legs, excessive sweating, and heavy limb feathering. You can prevent mud fever in your horse by keeping them in dry conditions and always drying them properly after they've been bathed.
Arthritis is one of the most common issues in horses, caused by their size and athleticism. Arthritis is a general term for what happens when the cartilage between a horse's joints begins to break down. A horse's joints consist of two bones meeting one another, each protected by a layer of cartilage that allows for smooth movement. There is also synovial fluid in these joints, which acts as a lubricant.
In an arthritis-free horse, these components all work together to allow your horse to walk and run freely, their joints sliding past one another smoothly. Over time, though, factors can play a role in eroding the cartilage and removing the synovial fluid in a horse's joints, causing chronic pain, inflammation, and discomfort.
One of the common causes of arthritis is inflammation. Inflammation is an immune system response to foreign bodies. When your horse's system believes it is under attack, it sends out inflammatory cells to destroy the foreign bodies. However, when inflammation is triggered by something other than a foreign body, like overexercise or stress, then the inflammatory response ends up attacking the horse's joints instead.
Arthritis is historically difficult to prevent in horses since there are so many different factors that lead to its development. There are supplements available, however, like CBD, that can regulate your horse's inflammatory response, preventing arthritis and slowing down its progression in horse's that already have the condition.
Laminitis is the term for inflammation in the soft tissues of a horse's hoof. Laminitis can be chronic (a constant condition), recurrent (a reoccurring condition), or acute (a one time issue). Despite the severity of the condition, it is surprisingly common among horses, with 35% of owners reporting that their horse has suffered from the condition at least once.
Laminitis is usually the result of a loss of blood flow to a horse's hooves. Although there is no single cause for laminitis, it is believed that diseases, the endocrine system, and mechanical overload or obesity may be linked to it. Other factors, like cold weather, colic, and infection can cause a horse to develop laminitis.
Horses with laminitis will usually have issues walking, soreness in their feet, frequently lay down, changes in the shape of their feet, and hooves that are hot to the touch. The best way to prevent laminitis is to ensure that your horse is on a proper diet and is always given adequate hoof care.
While you've likely heard of colic in babies, it's common to horses as well. It's a digestive disorder known to cause mild to severe abdominal pain.
Colic in horses breaks down into many types, namely:
- Gas colic
- Spasmodic colic
- Impaction colic
- Sand colic
- Twisted gut
- Displacement / entrapment colic
- Strangulation colic
However, the common types of colic are spasmodic and impact.
Spasmodic colic is when an excess amount of gas builds up in your horse's digestive system, causing their gut to stretch painfully. Impact colic occurs when a horse has ingested coarse or dry feed that creates an obstruction in their gut, causing their digestive system to back up. In impact colic, the pain comes from the body contracting in an attempt to clear the blockage.
Colic can result in abdominal pains, restlessness, lack of appetite, lying down, frequent urination, and excessive sweat. The best way to prevent colic is to feed your horse proper feed in small amounts throughout the day, rather than in large quantities once or twice during the day. One in ten colic cases in horses requires vet intervention to be resolved, so don't hesitate to reach out to a vet professional if your horse's colic is severe.
Poor Dental Care
While mostly limited to senior horses, dental issues can be a real problem for horses in a variety of ways. Dental problems in horses are usually the result of the way horses eat. Like most herbivores, horses' teeth are designed to grind plants before ingesting them.
While proper grinding usually doesn't cause any dental problems for horses, many horses do not grind their food properly. Just like in humans, this can simply be the result of misalignments in their teeth and jaw that have been with them since birth. This typically doesn't evolve into a more serious problem until later in a horse's life, which is why senior horses are the most at risk for dental care problems.
You can tell if a horse is having dental issues by the way that they eat. If they tend to spit out food without fully chewing it, or dribble food while eating, they may have or be at risk for dental issues. The best way to handle dental issues in your horse is to contact a vet as soon as you suspect they may have difficulty eating. Because the damage caused by improper grinding is permanent, it's important to tackle the issue as early on as possible.
Stomach ulcers are one of the most common health issues in horses of all ages, and they can range from mild discomfort to a serious health concern. Gastric ulcers are sores inside a horse's digestive system that are unable to heal. The typical cause is stomach acid, though research is showing that frequent NSAIDs can also be the culprit.
A horse's stomach is divided into two sections, the upper and lower. The lower section is lined with thick mucus, protecting it thoroughly against stomach acid. The upper portion, however, does not have this protection and is therefore vulnerable to stomach acid.
It might seem strange that a horse's stomach is vulnerable to stomach acid, but there is a reasoning behind it. In the wild, a horse would graze all throughout the day. The food that horses graze acts as a natural stomach acid neutralizer, so the upper stomach should never be in contact with harsh stomach acid for very long. When domesticated, though, horse owners tend to feed them like they would any other animal, two or three times a day. When on this kind of a feeding schedule, horse's aren't able to neutralize their stomach acid, leading to ulceration.Despite how common they are, stomach ulcers are entirely preventable. Giving your horse access to feed all day long allows them to naturally neutralize their stomach acid. It also helps to look for alternatives to NSAIDs, like CBD, that don't cause stomach ulcers to develop.
As you would likely expect, back issues are an extremely common problem among domestic horses. Performance horses are particularly susceptible to back issues, even early on in their careers. The reason is that, although humans have been riding horses for thousands of years, horses were never meant to have a rider in the wild.
Casual riding, and even occasional competitive riding, isn't too much of a strain on your horse, so long as you are riding properly. The problems start to occur, though, when you are riding your horse too long and too often, and/or are riding them improperly.
You'll know if a horse is beginning to develop back issues by the way they ride. If they seem more reluctant, jerky, or awkward during riding, then you should let them rest until you get a chance to have them examined by a vet. So long as the damage isn't severe, the best treatment for back issues in horses is usually plenty of rest in between performances and pain relievers.
You've likely heard of botulism in humans, which is usually the result of eating bad meat. In horses, the causes are fairly similar. Botulism is a type of food poisoning caused by bacteria found in contaminated foods. When horses ingest contaminated hay, they are likely to contract botulism.
Horses typically get botulism from one of three sources. The first is spoiled feed, wet or dry. The second is after they have consumed feed that was in contact with a carcass. And the third is from a wound that contracts botulism on its own. Botulism is an extremely serious condition, as affected horses can end up perishing or needing to be euthanized.
A horse that has botulism will usually exhibit signs of limpness or paralysis throughout the body, especially in their tongue and eyelids. A horse with botulism is also likely to have difficulty swallowing. You can prevent your horse from getting botulism by giving them a botulism vaccine and by making sure that their food is always fresh and stored in safe conditions.
Dr. Ivana Vukasinovic
Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, University of Belgrade
Ivana Vukasinovic grew up in Serbia and attended the University of Belgrade where she received a degree in Veterinary medicine in 2012 and later completed surgical residency working mostly with livestock. Her first year of practice was split between busy small animal practice and emergency clinic, and after two more years of treating many different species of animals, she opened her own veterinary pharmacy where an interest in canine and feline nutrition emerged with an accent on fighting animal obesity. In her free time, she acts as a foster parent for stray animals before their adoption, likes to read SF books and making salted caramel cookies.
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