Why Your Horse Needs an Annual Checkup

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Improve Quality of Life and Longevity through a Wellness Exam

by Dave Sauter, DVM


October 2014
Your horse’s body condition score (BCS), an indicator of health and wellness, will be evaluated during an annual exam. Photo courtesy Catherine Madera

An annual routine examination by your veterinarian is a great way to check in on the health of your horse. The purpose of an annual equine wellness exam is not unlike that of human wellness exams. The goals are centered on disease prevention, improving health and detecting unrecognized health problems. Although a review of pre-existing and new problems are part of the exam, the scope of a wellness program is more comprehensive and is a look at the whole picture.

The first step in the examination is a review of the history. It is helpful to be prepared for this as it will make for a better, more complete medical record. Of course there will be questions about the medical history, such as previous health problems and injuries, dates and type of previous vaccinations and de-worming. There will also be questions about general management practices such as nutrition, a list of what is fed and in what amounts.

After collecting the history, your veterinarian will perform a physical examination. Temperature, pulse or heart rate, respiratory rate, and weight (usually an estimate based on a weight tape). The body will be evaluated to determine a body condition score. The heart, respiratory and digestive tract will also be checked with a stethoscope. The skin will be checked from end to end, looking for lumps, bumps and other abnormalities. The ears are difficult to examine on a horse without sedation, but a cursory exam will be adequate to check for abnormalities such as aural plaques and sarcoids. Eyes are checked for signs of abnormalities including “moon blindness,” tumors such as sarcoids or squamous cell carcinoma, corneal opacities and cataracts. The eye exam is best performed in a dark environment, where the pupils will dilate, allowing the veterinarian to examine deeper eye structures. Lymph nodes, especially in the throat area are examined. The mucous membranes will be checked for color, moistness and capillary refill time. A cursory dental exam is also done, if the horse is cooperative. A complete dental exam requires a full mouth speculum and proper environment and is generally not done in a routine wellness exam. Checking tendons, ligaments, joints and the feet are part of the wellness exam, as well as a brief look at the horse in motion.

Laboratory tests generally are part of wellness exam. Here is a list of the more commonly recommended tests:

  • Complete blood count – checks the cells of the blood, including red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets
  • Fibrinogen – a blood protein that is an indicator of inflammation
  • Chemistry panel – check a battery of values to evaluate organ functions such as kidney and liver, electrolyte levels, and blood protein levels
  • Tests for equine metabolic syndrome and Cushing’s disease in senior horses
  • Fecal flotation – to check for internal parasites. Note, not all internal parasites can be detected by this exam.

Your veterinarian will make recommendations for vaccination, based on your horse’s individual circumstances. “Core” vaccinations that the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) recommends for all horses include tetanus, eastern and western equine encephalomyelitis (EEE and WEE), West Nile virus and rabies. All of these are very serious, life threatening (EEE, WEE, and WNV) or fatal (tetanus and rabies) diseases. In the case of rabies, there can be serious public health concerns since the disease can be transmitted to people. For all of these, there are safe, effective, affordable vaccines. The AAEP also recommends other vaccines based on a “risk assessment” for the particular horse, vaccines for diseases such as influenza and rhinopneumonitis. Ultimately, what is recommended by your veterinarian will be determined by the individual circumstances of your horse.

De-worming is another subject likely to be discussed at a wellness exam. Gone are the days of treating all horses the same with frequent de-worming. The current recommendation is to individualize de-worming practices, tailoring the program to each individual’s particular needs, with the goal of minimizing the frequency of de-worming and therefore reducing the development of drug resistant parasites. This will require testing in the form of fecal floatation by the laboratory to track the parasite burden of the individual.

The wellness exam is a broad stroke approach. It is an opportunity to check in on the individual horse’s health and management. The goal is to promote “wellness,” to prevent disease and health problems and to detect unrecognized problems. In the end, it will lead to longer, healthier, happier lives.


Originally Published October 2014 Issue

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