When a medical problem exists, horses aren't able to tell us something has changed or hurts. Unfortunately for us and them, signs of a problem can often be subtle and go unnoticed even by the experienced horse owner. It can take a trained eye to uncover the early signs of health issues (and sometimes the eye of someone who doesn’t see the horse every day!).
Uncovering problems early in the course of a disease often leads to better treatment options, better long-term prognosis, and improved overall health and longevity of the horse.
The annual equine wellness exam is your opportunity to have a veterinarian do a thorough once-over examination on your horse. It includes monitoring your horse’s weight, body condition, and vital parameters; listening to the heart, lungs, and abdomen; evaluating the head, body, and skin; and manually examining the limbs. We also do a brief oral exam. It's at this time that we discuss vaccination protocols, deworming, and other management strategies.
The annual equine wellness exam can sometimes uncover conditions that owners didn't know were there. Here is my list of the top 7 conditions found during annual equine wellness exams.
Horses that suffer from laminitis (or inflammation of the soft tissues within the hoof) can show serious lameness and pain. However, sometimes they show very little sign of obvious lameness. Early signs of laminitis seen on an exam could include increased digital pulses (pulses felt in the vessels supplying the foot), rings on the surface of the hoof capsule, widened white line on the sole, or abnormal growth of the hoof.
Untreated laminitis can lead to permanent damage to the coffin bone (bone within the hoof), permanent lameness, or abnormal hoof growth, and it could indicate inappropriate nutrition or an underlying untreated metabolic disorder.
6. Cancerous Lumps (Melanomas, Squamous Cell Carcinomas, and Sarcoids)
Several types of cancerous lumps can affect the skin of horses and are not always obvious at first glance, particularly those in hard to reach places.
Melanomas are a common tumor type in gray horses. They affect the tail, anus, head, and neck. They are often benign and do not cause a problem. However, melanomas have the potential to cause metastatic cancer and can be locally invasive enough to cause clinical signs.
Squamous cell carcinomas are another common tumor in all types of horses, particularly present on eyes, nose, and genital regions of horses. They are often found on non-pigmented areas of a horse’s skin -- those areas exposed to UV light are particularly at risk. Squamous cell carcinomas can be extremely aggressive and metastasize or spread to other parts of the body so quickly that removal is indicated for a good outcome.
Sarcoids are another common tumor type that can take on many different forms and frequently look different. They can be locally aggressive and notoriously difficult to remove completely without surgical excision and a topical chemotherapeutic agent. They can occur anywhere on the body.
With all tumor types, removal is much easier and correlated with a better outcome when they're evaluated as a small tumor and treated early.
Uveitis is a fancy term for inflammation within the front portion of the eye. Many types of horses (in particular Appaloosas or those exposed to leptospirosis) can be affected by a condition referred to as equine recurrent uveitis (ERU). This will present itself during an exam as some mild discharge from one or both eyes or eyes that slightly close due to pain and inflammation in the front portion of the eye. Left untreated, uveitis can lead to permanent damage within a horse’s eye and possible blindness or loss of an eye.
4. Degenerative Joint Disease or Osteoarthritis
Horses are very prone to developing arthritis in several joints as they age due to their anatomical makeup. Early arthritis may initially present as generalized stiffness in a horse’s gait or subtle changes to the limb or in weight bearing. Common locations for arthritis in the horse include the front fetlock, pastern, carpus (knees), and hocks.
While arthritis is a progressive condition, early identification of this problem can help determine appropriate treatment of pain and inflammation (whether systemically, locally, through daily management, or otherwise), hopefully adding years of usefulness to your horse.
3. PPID or Equine Cushing's Disease
Equine Cushing’s disease (also known as PPID) is far and away the most common metabolic disorder of horses and affects a good percentage of aged horses (generally horses over 15 years old). Horses affected by advanced PPID often appear to have long curly haircoats, potbellied appearance, and muscle wasting. They could also have signs of laminitis. Horses with early PPID often do not display such obvious clinical signs and may only have subtle weight loss or changes in their musculature, or be prone to more infections (frequent hoof abscesses, skin issues, or dental disease). Veterinarians are often in tune with early clinical signs and can help identify PPID in your horse sooner.
Treating PPID earlier can often help curtail clinical signs and avoid the serious side effects of the condition including laminitis, chronic infections, muscles wasting, and other physical changes.
2. Heart Murmurs
When listening to your horse’s heart, your veterinarian can determine if there is a murmur present. A murmur represents the abnormal flow of blood within the heart leading to a murmur sound between beats.
Not all heart murmurs in horses indicate serious disease nor need to be treated. However, some types of murmurs are more significant than others and could lead to exercise intolerance in the horse or be related to other abnormalities. Horses with heart murmurs are often more at risk when undergoing sedation for procedures.
Drum roll please! The most common medical condition we see in horses on their wellness exams that owners are not aware of is ... you guessed it ... obesity.
An integral part of every equine wellness exam is monitoring of your horse’s weight (which can be fairly accurate to estimate on the farm through a weight tape method) and overall body condition. Many show horses are kept over conditioned because owners like to see their horses in “good flesh". However, overweight horses are extremely common and much more prone to serious conditions that can affect their life significantly, including arthritis, laminitis, colic, and more. Knowing how your horse’s weight and body condition change from year to year can not only help you dose the correct amounts of medication, it can also save your horse’s life!
Taking a proactive approach with an equine wellness exam can make the difference between a good prognosis and grave one. It's for this reason that Badger Equine Veterinary Services recommends a wellness exam for all horses on an annual basis. Our goal is to stop health issues early so you and your horse can have a successful, healthy, long, and wonderful life together!