Commercial farmers sell off their livestock as soon as they are no longer productive, but many smallholders don’t have the heart to do that. However, just as most humans start to have trouble with their joints, teeth and digestion as they get older, old animals will have similar problems and owner should do whatever they can to keep them comfortable.
Sheep can live to more than ten years of age cattle to more than 15 and horse swell into their 20s, so it is certainly viable to keep animals to an older age. But, it requires extra planning, preparation and preventive health care.
A common problem among cattle, horses, sheep and goats will be difficulties with their feet. Because they are less active, overgrowth of the horn on their feet can become a problem. Most farm animals need regular foot trimming or rasping and older animals might need it more often. The tools necessary are a pair of hoof clippers, a hoof knife and a rasp but if you are unsure what to do you can call on a farrier or veterinarian for regular pedicures.
Older animals’ feed requirements may change. In older animals, worn down teeth and loose or missing teeth can make grazing difficult. If you notice excess salivation (drooling) or dropping food from the mouth, have a veterinarian examine the animal.
Eventually teeth problems lead to weight loss because the animal can’t bite or chew effectively. Once a cow or sheep starts to lose her incisor teeth, every bite she takes becomes slightly less efficient, meaning it takes more bites to eat the same amount of feed as a younger animal. So, older livestock may need extra feed, particularly when grazing is short.
A ruminant’s molar teeth are vital to be able to chew food, so any trouble with these will lead to weight loss.
Among older horses, sharp edges (on the outside of the top cheek teeth and the inside of the bottom cheek teeth) are very common, 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.
On the other hand, feeding too much can cause other problems. If animals become too fat, excess weight can exacerbate other health issues commonly found in older animals, such as arthritis.
It is a good idea to keep older animals of similar age together, as this can help in the management of feed quality and correct quantity.
They should have sufficient minerals, as deficiencies of magnesium and calcium can cause diseases such as grass tetany or milk fever.
Maintain older animals in a medium condition score — visible hips, with some fat over the sides (hooks and pins), and a visible backbone.
Stiffness is often caused by degenerative changes in and around the joints. Old bulls or rams should always be assessed by a vet to ensure they are fertile and sound before being joined with cows or ewes. It is not uncommon that a male looks sound but, due to arthritis in hip or stifle joints, is unable to mate.
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 or 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.
There are anti- inflammatory drugs available for animals, if the stiffness worsens.
Worms in the stomach and intestine can cause problems in older livestock, because older animals are more susceptible to parasites. They may benefit from strategic treatments with anthelmintics.
Older animals are more vulnerable to disease because their immune systems may not be as responsive as when they were in their prime. Bacterial or viral infections can also be a problem, so it is important to maintain their vaccinations.
Sickness in any old animals should be investigated further, as it can be a sign there is a problem in your overall herd or flock.
As a responsible owner, you need to constantly ensure that the animal is comfortable and relatively pain free. At some stage though, you are probably going to have to discuss euthanasia with your vet, who can advise when other treatment options have been exhausted.