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Old pets and livestock: Part One: Keeping them happy

Stiff joints, teeth problems, loss of strength and energy. To those of you who are getting on a bit, this may sound familiar. We’re not the only species to experience degenerative changes as we get older. Old animals have the same sort of problems.

When animals have given us hours of pleasure during their lifetime, we owe it to them make their last few years as comfortable as possible, even when they have outlived their usefulness…..whether they’ve been family dogs, or working dogs, or house cows, or riding horses ….or just entertaining paddock ornaments!

Most of us have the resources and facilities to make life a bit easier for our special oldies. Here are some suggestions that might help you help them:

  • For older horses the main problems are often stiffness, weight loss, and or feet and teeth problems.
  • For cattle, aging tends to bring weight loss, and feet problems.
  • For sheep and goats, the problems might be stiffness and or feet or teeth problems,

Stiffness

Stiffness is often caused by degenerative changes in and around the joints.

In any species, some mild stiffness can improve with regular mild exercise such as a steady walk each day. It certainly helps if the animal isn’t fat, because excess weight puts more stress on the joints. It helps too if the animal has access to effective shelter from bad weather.

In cold wet weather, stiff horses can be made more comfortable by keeping them warm with a good waterproof cover. The cover should be checked frequently to make sure it doesn’t leak or cause chafing.

With persistent or severe stiffness or lameness, it is wise to get veterinary advice on what treatments could provide some relief. As with us, there are anti-inflammatories and nutritional supplements that can help.

Teeth

In older animals, worn down teeth and loose missing teeth can make grazing difficult. The signs include excess salivation (drooling) or dropping food from the mouth. Eventually teeth problems lead to weight loss because the animal can’t bite or chew effectively.

It’s usually fairly easy to check the incisors, but the cheek teeth are more difficult to examine. If you suspect tooth problems, consult a specialist, ie a veterinarian or a specialized animal dentist.

Sharp edges (on the outside of the top cheek teeth and the inside of the bottom cheek teeth) are very common in older horses, and can cause ulcers inside the cheeks and on the edges of the tongue.

As a guideline, older horses benefit from dental treatment every year or two. This improves their bite and chewing efficiency by rasping and levelling sharp edges and uneven surfaces on cheek teeth and incisors.

Weight loss

Weight loss is common in old animals, and while it might be inevitable with advancing years, there are contributing factors that can be treated.

As well as the arthritis and teeth problems described above, worms in the stomach and intestine can cause problems in older livestock, because older animals are more susceptible to worms than their younger more robust paddock-mates. They may benefit from strategic treatments with anthelmintics and management changes as described elsewhere on this website.

Feet

As livestock get older they become less active and overgrowth of the horn on their feet can become a problem. Most farm animals need regular foot trimming or rasping, particularly as they get older. Keep an eye on their feet, and trim or have the feet trimmed before overgrowth results in splitting or breaking of the hoof (in horses) or curling under and distortion of the digits (in ruminants).

Experienced stockmen can do the trimming with good pincers or rasps, otherwise veterinarians or specialist technicians can be employed to do the job.

The bottom line

Taking extra good care of your older animals will ensure they can enjoy a few more years of quality life on your farm. But eventually and inevitably the time comes to consider euthanasia. This is the last act of kindness we can do for our animals.

More on Euthanasia in Part Two.

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