Is anesthesia safe for my senior horse?
Throughout my career as a veterinarian I have noticed a trend toward horses living longer. In the years right after veterinary school, I didn’t treat many 20-year-old horses. Today I routinely treat horses that are still working in their twenties and retired in their thirties.
We need to remember (I keep telling myself this as well) that OLD AGE IS NOT A DISEASE, yet some diseases are more common in older horses. Liver and kidney disease can be diagnosed through routine blood tests. The liver and kidneys are the organs that remove anesthesia from the body, so we need to know that these organs are working well. If you wonder about your horse’s ability to process anesthesia, we can perform a simple blood test in advance of your visit. This “Senior Horse Health Panel” will also measure red and white blood cell levels to make sure your horse is not anemic.
Dental disease is another common occurrence in the older horse, making a proper and complete dental examination even more important. Years of dental overgrowths caused by simple malocclusions can cause teeth to shift and move apart. Over time, hay and feed collect between the teeth, and bacteria and plaque accumulate, which can lead to periodontal disease. After age 20, the incidence of periodontal infection increases, causing teeth to become loose and require extraction. Teeth become shorter with age and they sometimes become more sensitive as well. If a senior horse becomes sensitive to dental therapies, we can also use local nerve blocks such as your dentist uses to desensitize an area of the horse’s mouth.
Many older retired horses have advanced arthritis of their limbs and their stability is not great, even when awake. Veterinarians have a wide variety of sedatives, tranquilizers and anesthetics from which to choose. Each medication has a different function regarding anti-anxiety, muscle relaxation and sedation, and we can design anesthesia that will provide relaxation and limit instability.
Communication between the owner of a senior horse and the veterinarian is crucial in making both parties comfortable with anesthesia, diagnostic testing or therapeutic plans for your horse’s dental health.