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Managing grief responses
Bereavement could deteriorate the health of your horses


Equine maternal behavior follows this pattern of variability as well. When a young foal dies, the mare can respond strongly with vocalization, anxiety and frenzied activity. This response may be mild to severe and will last for differing durations depending on the mare.

Behavioral treatment Both Drs. Houpt and Crowell-Davis recommend allowing the mare to spend time with her dead foal. Most mares will examine the foal and move away, return, and move away again. Depending on the variability of the individual, this process will take several hours but the mare eventually will begin ignoring the foal and it then can be removed. Mares treated in this way show much less vocalizing and anxiety. They grieve and, "As far as we can tell at this point, they come to some realization of death," Crowell-Davis says.

But any time a horse dies, it is recommended that other horses that may have been close to the deceased horse be allowed to spend time near it. The "grief response" seen in horses given this opportunity seems to be lessened, and the amount of time until a return to near-normal behavior is far shortened.

But even when allowed to spend time with a departed herd mate, some horses, like Ben in our example, show an exaggerated depth of depression and can present with physical problems that are really physiologically based. The appropriate treatment for these horses is similar to that used with depressed humans. Supportive therapy should address any metabolic concerns, such as arthritis, dehydration and poor food intake. Behavioral treatment is aimed at getting the horse interested in its environment again. Special foods, increased play and interaction with the owner (even something as simple as additional grooming can be very beneficial) and communication with other horses might be required. The introduction of other horses may be problematic, however, as some horses, especially older animals, might resent new herd mates and this additional stress can worsen the situation. Dr. Houpt recommends adding a new horse to the herd, when possible, before one of an older pair of horses becomes ill. This is not always possible, but if early illness is noted, then another horse can be added to the group so there is a pre-existing bond with this new horse to help with the loss of an older herd mate.

Many owners and trainers can identify this "universally acceptable" herd mate on their farm. This is a special horse that seems to get along with every animal and be liked by every animal. This is the older gelding that serves as companion for all weaned foals and is the first horse that newcomers to the farm are turned out with. It is not known why these special horses are so accepted, but they make excellent choices for the horses to introduce to a pair of ailing geriatrics or other situations where one horse might die soon. It is important to pair-up horses of similar dispositions and activity levels, and care and attention should be paid to choosing a new mate for a horse that is soon to lose an old mate.

Medical options If behavioral treatment is not sufficient, then medical treatment might be needed. This is especially true for those horses that show such severe grief that they are in danger of colic, anemia, dehydration and kidney problems or of any other metabolic concerns made worse by clinical depression. Initial treatment with valium can lessen anxiety and stimulate appetite. Because this drug produces a quick effect, it is most commonly used as the first step in treatment at a dose of 10-30 milligrams given every four hours in the feed. Fluoxentine hydrochloride (Prozac) is the drug that then would be used as a longer-term treatment. Prozac is much slower acting and is given at 80 mg daily, but the dose may be titrated up to two to 10 times that amount as needed. This combination of valium followed by fluoxentine hydrochloride has been helpful in lessening the extreme grief and depression seen in some horses. Methylphenidate (Ritalin) also has been tried as a means of decreasing anxiety but is not as rewarding as the valium/Prozac approach. After horses return to more normal activity while on the Prozac, herd additions can be made and if successful, the dosage of Prozac can be gradually decreased and then discontinued.


Source: DVM360 MAGAZINE,
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