Health Care Needs

Hoof Care

Horses’ hooves grow continually and, unless they’re left unshod and worn down by active movement on abrasive ground, they need frequent trims. “Maintaining balanced, healthy hooves is like keeping your vehicle tires in great condition,” explains Wilson. “Abnormal hoof balance or growth can be uncomfortable for the horse. Imbalances can impede the normal motion patterns of the lower limb and create undue torque on joints and ligaments, as well as unequal compression of hoof structures, bone, and cartilage. This can lead to tissue remodeling, such as development of collapsed heels, and may contribute to arthritis.” Managing these kinds of problems can be very expensive, but they generally can be avoided in the first place using regular foot care.

“Hooves grow more slowly in the winter and may only need trimming every eight to 10 weeks whereas in the summer six to eight weeks seems the norm,” says Wilson of typical trimming intervals. “I don’t advocate shoes for a horse that’s not working on surfaces that require hoof wall protection or traction.” Trimming costs typically run $30-75 per visit; shoeing costs $75-300.

Deworming

“Because of reported parasite resistance to currently available antiparasite drugs, we now recommend an approach that treats each horse as an individual,” says Camargo on deworming regimens. Owners can have their veterinarians run a fecal analysis, which quantifies parasite eggs and helps establish which horses are low egg shedders and which are high. “Most horses are dewormed two to three times per year, and only those with high fecal egg counts receive treatment more often,” she adds.

Both Camargo and Wilson note that, initially, fecal exams are an added expense. But eventually, less-intensive parasite control treatment results in cost savings. “On larger farms, it may be worth segregating high shedders to a specific pasture for more intensive parasite management or pasture rotation with other species,” Wilson adds. She emphasizes that there are longer-term savings in health care costs if horses do not become infected with anthelmintic-resistant internal parasites.

Dental Care

Regular dental care helps horses maximize nutrient use to maintain body condition and keeps their teeth useful into old age. Wilson urges owners to have every horse’s teeth checked annually and any issues corrected. This can cost around $250 per year, but might save money in the long run.

“Health issues such as tooth abscesses or cancer may be spotted before causing a bigger problem,” says Camargo. “Horses with healthy teeth chew better, resulting in less feed wastage and expense.” Proper mastication (chewing) also reduces the risk of colic or diarrhea. Removing sharp points from teeth can improve behavior, bit comfort, trainability, and performance.

Vaccination

A core group of immunizations protect against diseases considered deadly, transmissible to humans, or widespread: tetanus, Eastern and Western encephalitis, rabies and West Nile virus. The AAEP recommends vaccinating every horse against these annually.

Risk-based vaccine recommendations (protecting against influenza, rhinopneumonitis, strangles, Potomac horse fever, botulism, anthrax, equine viral arteritis, and rotavirus) vary according to the horse’s use, gender (i.e., with venereal diseases), and location. Competition horses that travel are at a higher risk of exposure to respiratory viruses and strangles.

“Considering the axiom to rest a horse for one week for each degree of fever following an infection, coming down with a respiratory virus can certainly put a damper on a show or racing season,” says Wilson. “Due to the highly contagious nature of viruses, it can also shut down an entire barn.”

Thus, it is cost-effective to boost respiratory vaccines twice yearly to avoid these bugs, associated performance losses, and veterinary expenses. Horse owners should consult their veterinarians about which diseases are prevalent in their region (and areas where they’ll travel) and vaccinate accordingly. In general, annual core vaccines and biannual respiratory viral vaccines run $100-140.

Coggins Testing

Veterinarians use ELISA testing (historically referred to as a Coggins test) to check a horse for antibodies to the equine infectious anemia virus (EIA), for which there is no vaccine. This virus, spread by biting flies, is similar to HIV in humans–once infected a horse remains a carrier for life and/or becomes extremely sick and dies. Owners of a horse testing positive for EIA must adhere to a strict quarantine protocol or have the horse euthanized. A Coggins test is inexpensive ($40-60) and provides assurance that horses traveling across state boundaries or arriving at barns or events do not carry this disease.

Musculoskeletal Health

Another health aspect is the musculoskeletal system: Is the horse sound and comfortable? Older equine athletes might benefit from periodic joint injections to minimize inflammation from progressive degenerative joint disease; such treatments can run $400-700 once or twice a year.

Veterinarians observe that oral supplementation with nutraceuticals is becoming a common practice among owners. “I am not in favor of indiscriminate use of joint supplements as they are expensive and may not be needed,” Camargo remarks.

In a 2010 AAEP Convention Proceedings cost analysis study on osteoarthritis management, researchers determined owners’ annual joint therapy medical expenses could amount to $3,000; indirect annual medical expenses could be as high as $15,000. The most cost-effective treatment approach involves a thorough veterinary exam to obtain an accurate diagnosis.