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Signs of chronic disease

Posted on Monday, July 25th, 2011 at 3:57 pm

Herbs and Alternatives in Equine Practice

Joyce C Harman, DVM MRCVS October 2000.itchy tail

The following information is taken from the article ‘Herbs and Alternatives in Equine Practice.’ The first section of this article appeared in the April 2011 HATO Journal.

Signs of chronic disease

Signs of disease manifest as mental or physical symptoms that range from mild to severe. Any deviation from health can be considered a sign of disease, but may only indicate an imbalance in feed. It is important for humans as guardians of animals to become more observant of the following signs of disease. Mental signs that chronic disease may be present include excessive fears, nervousness and inability to adapt to change. Horses with repetitive behaviors such as weaving, stall-walking, self mutilation or cribbing appear addicted to these behaviors and are probably not dealing with the stresses of confinement very well. If a horse is having a hard time adapting to the stress of confinement, the immune system is probably being compromised and the horse’s health may deteriorate. Typically horses that are either consistently underweight or overweight have a problem with chronic disease. Underweight horses may have trouble digesting or utilizing food, or they may have low-grade liver disease or cancer. Horses chronically overweight, especially those with fat deposits and cresty necks, may have metabolic problems but may simply be overfed and under exercised.

The respiratory system is commonly affected in the chronically ill horse. Allergies usually manifest as heaves and allergic coughs (although allergies with itchy skin are commonly seen in the warm climates). Allergies are a sign of immune system imbalance and over-reactivity. Many high-speed horses (racing, eventing, steeplechasing) bleed from the lungs, showing signs of weakness in the respiratory tract. Foals with upper respiratory snots of several months duration may be considered normal by conventionally trained individuals. However, from a holistic perspective, protracted infections are an indicator of disease.

Skin is the largest organ in the body, and internal health and nutritional state are reflected in the skin and hooves. The dry, dull, bleached coats on which people spend fortunes, can be best treated from the inside using a complete holistic approach. One of the primary signs of a healthy horse is a deep rich color to the hair. Truly healthy horses have a glow to their coat and they do not bleach out in the sun. Allergies, especially itching eruptions, are signs of chronic immune system problems (Dodds, 1993), and though skin allergies are difficult to cure with any form of medicine, the holistic approach is often successful. Often, seemingly simple conditions like dermatophilis (rain rot, etc.) are signs of subtle disease. All horses on a given property may be exposed to a causative agent, yet only a subset of the horses succumb to the infection. As horses are cured from chronic disease, skin conditions including warts, sarcoids, oily or sticky sweat, discharges from the sheath, poor wound healing and excessive scar tissue production tend to resolve.

Feet are an adaptation of the skin structures, and the old adage, “no foot, no horse”, is as true today as when it originated. Poor nutrition, chronic disease and weather conditions play important roles in the health of the foot, as does the quality of the farrier work. Cracked, brittle or dry feet as well as soft or crumbly feet can be signs of chronic disease. Thrush, white line disease, abscesses and seedy toe need to addressed from a holistic standpoint and be considered as subtle signs of disease.

Gastro-intestinal disorders are an important disease entity, as colic is the number one killer of horses. However, most facilities where colic is common have identifiable management problems, especially when taking into account horses’ natural grazing and exercising habits.

Lack of correct roughage is one of the primary causes of colic, since the equine gut is designed for long stem roughage and not concentrates. The stress of confinement contributes to colic, as does the overuse of antibiotics and dewormers. Horses with chronic digestive tract problems including dry feces, soft feces, ulcers, sensitivity to change in diet or weather, odiferous stools, failure to digest completely, cravings for dirt, salt or wood, fussy eaters and various mouth problems probably suffer from chronic disease. The reproductive system is affected by nutrition, management, heredity and chronic disease. Horses are selected for desirable performance and are not selected for reproductive health as they are in the wild. Mares have many problems, both physical and behavioral, associated with their heat cycles. Infertility of the male and female, including lack of libido, sterility, ovulation problems and chronic uterine infections of all types, can often be corrected holistically.

Equine musculoskeletal problems, which usually manifest as lameness, are a common reason for horse owners to seek veterinary services. Lameness is yet another sigh that can be an indication of disease in the horse. Muscle stiffness and tying up, as well as weak tendons and ligaments, may have a nutritional or chronic disease origin. Arthritic changes in the joints, including navicular syndrome, can result from an ill-fitting saddle, shoeing, nutrition or chronic disease. From a Chinese perspective, constant swelling or stocking up of the legs indicates poor digestion (Xie, 1994).

The signs discussed above are merely an introduction to the signs of chronic disease and are presented to stimulate thought about the current state of health in our horses. Typically disease symptoms are resolved best by treating the chronic disease with the appropriate therapy (homeopathy, acupuncture, chiropractic, herbal medicine and others), nutrition and management changes.

This information is taken from the article ‘Herbs and Alternatives in Equine Practice’  from the April 2011 HATO (Holistic Animal Therapy Organisation) Journal, Australia. www.hato.com.au


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