Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Caring for Older Animals: Part 2

You can read Part 1 here.

Providing appropriate shelter for the older animal is an important consideration that can reduce the stress placed on an aging body trying to cope with regulating temperature under variable conditions. Animals will feel the effects of heat more, and may become lethargic or begin to sweat when their younger companions may still appear comfortable. Alternately, in the winter arthritic joints and poorer circulation to the extremities will effect the older animal. My partner and brothers built Angie a well ventilated stable to offer shelter from sun and rain. However, with the exception of when eating and drinking in the stable, she seldom uses it because she chooses to stand at the fence with her companion, a miniature horse owned by our neighbour. When placing a shelter not only the direction of cooling summer breezes, cold winds and sun need to be considered, but also where your animal is likely to want to spend their time if there are other attractions to them. Gladly the fence she stands at is shady and sheltered from winds. 

our old horse
Angie sheltering under he favorite tree

Rugging offers additional protection from rain, wind and insects. Flies are a major problem in our paddock, despite regular manure removal. They bite Angie all over,drawing blood and leaving scabs, which is enough to distress an animal of any age, however the effects on Angie of constant stamping and walking through bushes to brush the flys off means she rests less and her lameness increases. We have found that covering with rugs and fly boots are the only effective means of reducing the effects of flies. Our flies were not deterred by repellants. A highly reflective silver open weave rug, with neck rug has been effective as it reflects the sun but allows air movement under the rug, in theory reducing the heat of wearing a rug on hot summer days.

As animals reach old age we adjust their routines to suit their changing physical abilities, such as lighter work or retirement for horses. Recently I discovered how essential it is to consider how such a change in routine, particularly in the case of working animals, effects our relationship with the animal and their psychological well being. Angie has been retired for six years. She worked hard for me at pony club and competitions, completing a one day event only three months before retirement at the age of 25. She enjoys human company and working to please us (most of the time!). However earlier this year she began exhibiting some new behavior which we had never experienced with her. She was threatening to nip us, even on the face, was very difficult to handle on the lead when taken out of the paddock, and displayed pig rooting and fancy prancing when taken near the sporting oval a short walk down the street. Watching the oval, which is in view from her paddock, became an obsession, to the extent of preferencing the behavior over eating (she became an avid soccer fan).

We were immediately able to rule out too much energy as the behaviour began when we she had become a little underweight before we had become aware of the teeth problem. After some deep thinking we felt that the fixation on the oval was a sign of anxiety, and that the prancing indicated that she thought it was a horse show ring. She was expecting some handsome stallions to appear on the soccer oval. We felt that the anxiety and unwanted behavior may have been due in part to a lack of socialisation (she has one paddock companion but is used to having many more), but most likely was because her position in the 'herd' wasn't being reinforced appropriately. We, the humans, are part of the herd. When she was ridden she was always being asked to move off our aids and therefore accepted us as the alpha members of the herd. Come retirement, a short walk and handling during rugging  and feeding simply wasn't in Angie's case proving enough to reinforce her social position. As a result she was anxious and the nipping was her way of challenging our position. To her, the dynamics in our 'herd' had changed and she was attempting to assert her position.

I had always held an interest in wanting to learn natural horsemanship. There is a book on my shelf by renowned natural horseman Pat Parelli, 'Natural Horsemanship'. Parelli describes how his approach to working with horses draws on studying and understanding the nature of the horse and using this information to build a better relationship with our equine friends. We learn to talk their language. One of the first exercises his book offers is fingertip yielding. This is a simple on the ground exercise that asks our horse to yield to pressure applied by your fingertips to move back, pivot the hindquarters, move the forehand and to move forward. After a 10 minute session of this exercise with Angie she displayed an immediate improvement. Her trans fixation on the oval wasn't to be seen again that day, and quickly waned over the following week. After approximately a month of working with her in this simple manner on almost a daily basis the unwanted behaviour was gone and a relaxed horse was back. She had re accepted me as the alpha member and was happier for it. We now go for walks around the perimeter of the oval on a long lead without the pig roots.

On the day that I found Angie sick and in pain the vet arrived within half an hour and diagnosed her condition as colic. An electrolyte and a peppermint drench (coloured a lurid minty green, which the vet says is purely to make the owner feel that there is something useful in the fluid) were administered with a pain killer. We waited for some anxious hours, tallying up my available finances as the vet quoted me the costs of our limited options for further treatment if she didn't show signs of improvement very soon. I found myself in a position where I realised that the outcome for Angie could be dictated by my bank balance. For a horse that had given me her all, I wanted to give her the same but wasn't sure if I could. 

After the initial treatment she was still in pain. I was in a paralysis of indecision as to whether to take her in to the hospital for further treatment. I feared that any decision could be the last I make for her. I had a truck ordered to transport her in, then I cancelled it, but too late the truck arrived, so with ten minutes of procrastination and the driver patiently standing by I changed my mind again. Angie walked up the ramp and plop, a nice pile of manure landed at our feet (I was never happier to witness such a motion). By the time we reached the vets, I stood on the cobblestones wondering if they thought I was an over protective owner with my bright eyed horse sauntering off the truck. 

The following morning, with Angie safely home, I received a call from the vet. He told me of two old dogs he once had. They had reached a point where life was very painful. One day he found them under the house in a very sorry state and he realised that he had held onto them for too long. He deeply regretted not putting them out of their suffering earlier. Angie recovered well, she has a great zest for life, sometimes I forget that she is old. But I keep in the back of my mind that when the day comes, I need to have the courage to let go and do what is best for her. 

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