Medical Needs of Future Horses
Advancements in medical care for humans have fueled a demand for better medical diagnosis and treatment in the horses they own.
Credit: Arnd Bronkhorst Photography

Advancements in medical care for humans have fueled a demand for better medical diagnosis and treatment in the horses they own. Improvements in medical technology and a deeper understanding of diseases and disorders has led horse owners to expect faster diagnoses, higher treatment success rates and faster recovery times for the horses in their care. 

Future trends in human health care are likely to emerge in the horse industry. From preventative medicine to wellness, horse owners will look for ways to transfer the advancements of high-quality health care from their own medical experiences to that of their horses. If they are not already doing so, veterinarians might soon be asked to perform procedures using advanced diagnostic tools, genetic testing and regenerative medicine.

Even with research and breakthroughs, some of today’s most common ailments, such as colic and laminitis, will continue to remain challenges. “The impacts of increasing urbanization, specifically taking horses out of their natural environments, [will pose significant challenges],” said Eleanor M. Green, DVM, DACVIM, DABVP, the Carl B. King Dean of Veterinary Medicine at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas.

The medical needs of horses in the next five to 10 years will in many ways remain similar to the care they receive today. However, time leaves nothing unchanged, and as the years go on, specific approaches to equine care will change drastically.

Looking Ahead

Horses will continue to have infections, suffer from metabolic diseases and sustain injuries. Some of these issues will remain difficult to prevent or fully treat.

“Because of the lack of knowledge and research, today’s common maladies will continue to be infectious diseases, lameness, poor performance, airway disease, colic and infertility,” said Nathaniel A. White II, DVM, MS, DACVS, professor emeritus of equine surgery at the Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center in Leesburg, Virginia.

The spread of infectious illnesses poses a significant threat for competitive horses traveling regionally, nationally or internationally. “Exposure of the U.S. horse population to deadly diseases such as African horsesickness could cripple the industry,” he explained.

It is critical for veterinarians to educate horse owners about biosecurity and methods to prevent the spread of infectious diseases. At the same time, the use of antibiotics might be restricted to limit microbial resistance, which reduces the efficiency of antibiotics.

“Just as in human medicine, biosecurity and research to identify new treatments are needed,” White added.

Performance-related conditions—including musculoskeletal injuries and respiratory disease—will continue to top the list for competitive horses. “Hopefully we will be better able to predict injuries through early detection of markers and risk factors which then could decrease the incidence,” Green said.

Ongoing research will hopefully yield critical data and evidence that can be used to reduce instances of these issues and aid in the horse’s recovery. Pre-habilitation and rehabilitation practices will become more refined and play a more important role in the prevention of and recovery from injuries.

“Early detection of diseases will increase as owners continue to compete with their horses,” White said. “This will always apply to racehorses, but there will be an increased need, as well, for sport horses.”

Colic and colitis will continue to present challenges until a better understanding of the effect of genetics, nutrition and behavior on the gastrointestinal tract is available. “Extra effort and funding is needed for [the] research required to make advances in this area,” White stressed.

Parasite control will always be of concern for horse owners, but treatment strategies

will continue to progress. “Strategic use of anthelmintics and husbandry will replace administration of anthelmintics to help avoid parasite resistance,” White said. Fecal testing and carefully timed administration of deworming medications will become the standard, replacing the rotational deworming of years past.

Green anticipates breakthroughs in genomics and genetics, specifically as they are related to disease susceptibility and genetic manipulation. “Perhaps the inclusion of genetic testing will become a part of wellness programs,” she said.

Research on laminitis will eventually help prevent and treat laminitis. Much of this information will come from epidemiological studies on pasture-related laminitis. “While there is a better understanding of the reaction in the horse’s foot during laminitis, treatment remains challenging due to the silent onset of this disease,” White added.

Both Green and White agree that the use of biologic therapy, specifically regenerative medicine, will continue to increase. “The information from human and veterinary research suggests that this modality will help in numerous areas of medicine, not just for generating new tissue, [but also for the] stimulation of healing when treating tissues such as tendons, skin, lamina and intestine,” White said.

Geriatric Care

In 2012, AAEP market research results indicated that geriatric horse care is an area of opportunity for veterinarians. Of the owners and trainers who responded to the AAEP survey, the majority indicated the usage of their primary veterinarian would likely remain the same.

However, 5% of respondents said they anticipate using their veterinarian more often. “The reason [given for] increased veterinary needs was aging horses requiring more medical attention,” said Sally Baker, director of marketing and public relations at AAEP.

It’s not uncommon for horses to live well into their 20s and beyond. “Owners are taking better care of their horses as we learn more about taking care of them,” White said. “This is true for husbandry as well as medical care.”

Horse welfare is becoming increasingly important among horse owners. With increased attention on care for aging horses, this translates to spending more money on horses as they age. “This trend follows changing attitudes of owners in sync with evolving societal views of animals in general,” said Green. “While horse owners always have cared about their horses, increasingly they are treated more as pets and thus remain a part of owners’ lives longer.”

The improved health care available and the higher attention paid to this group allow horses to live longer, leading to a larger aging horse population that requires attention. “With increases in older horses, specific tests will help identify metabolic disease with particular emphasis on glucose intolerance,” White added.

“Equine practitioners who are attentive to the unique needs of their older patients often build a successful—and appreciative—client niche within their practice,” Baker added. “As clients learn more about the special medical requirements of their older animals, the veterinarian as care provider and advisor becomes an even more valuable partner.”

Preparing for the Future

More than ever, veterinarians will need to learn to practice excellent service as well as excellent medicine. “Owners expect to establish a relationship with their veterinarians to receive individual services for their horses,” White explained.

AAEP’s Touch program emphasizes this need and provides best practices for communications to meet horse owner expectations.

“Owners are self-educating themselves, receiving both accurate and inaccurate medical information from multiple sources,” said White. “Veterinarians must be ready to answer questions about the newest technology and treatments.”

As Green said, “Equine veterinarians should be knowledgeable horsemen and horsewomen on the cutting edge of science and technology framed by practical knowledge of horsemanship and horse industry issues. The platform should stand the test of time.”

Take-Home Message

Staying informed and up to date with cutting-edge medical breakthroughs is critical, specifically in the areas of imaging, rehabilitation, surgical techniques, behavior and genetic-based diseases. Continuing education events in person or online offer these much-needed updates.

Along with improved care for horses, owners will see increased costs associated with providing new levels of care to their horses. Fees for services of stall-side diagnostic tests that allow practitioners to make rapid and immediate decisions about horses under both primary and specialized care will continue to increase. As MRI and CAT scans become more useful, horse owners can expect to see larger bills.

“These costs can prevent owners from understanding the value of new medical technology and accepting the newest medical care,” White said. “Practitioners will need to educate owners on the benefits of using new, more costly medical technology in order to put it into use.”

The economic recession in the mid-2000s significantly affected the horse industry. Registrations in associations have decreased over the last 10 years and the number of horses in the U.S. is estimated to have decreased by 30%.

“As the economy expands, owners will likely spend more on their horses, but it will take more time for a full recovery. Referral practices are slowly seeing increased spending for specialized care,” White concluded.

The integration of technology into all aspects of veterinary care will only continue to increase. “From use in diagnosis, treatment, prevention, monitoring and so on, technology will expand to include telemedicine, remote medicine, iPhone apps, etc.,” Green concluded.

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