Equine Liver Failure: Fate’s Story

Fate was the name of a grey unregistered part-Arabian gelding. Initially selected to be my son’s 4H gaming horse, he became one of my backyard riding horses when my son lost interest.

I bought Fate when he was an estimated 19 years old. Even as a senior horse, he was quick and athletic with a strong personality. He was always the herd leader in the pasture.

Fate was the healthiest horse I ever owned. Like many grey horses, he sprouted some melanomas on his body. But in the ten years he lived in my backyard, he never needed an emergency vet call. He had no hoof problems. He never had any special management issues.

I rode Fate regularly until his mid-twenties and then gradually stopped. I had four horses by that time, including two gaited ponies with whom I was very active. Even though Fate was not experiencing any problems, it seemed the natural progression to retire him from riding and focus my horsemanship efforts on his younger herd-mates, Bear and Spice.

In 2014, when Fate was an estimated 29, I noticed he began losing weight and topline muscle. The changes happened quickly and caught me off guard. He had been an easy keeper up to that point.

Here is a picture of him in August 2014.

Here is a picture of him in October 2014, less than two months later.

When I first noticed the weight loss, I just figured his nutritional needs were changing due to his advancing age. So I began feeding Fate a senior horse feed in ever-increasing amounts. I thought that the extra calories would help him quickly fill back out. But instead, I continued to see weight loss.

During this same season, I was preparing to move across the country. Part of my moving preparations involved getting health certificates issued by a veterinarian for my horses. This paperwork is a legal requirement for horses crossing State lines.

In the course of all that preparation, Fate’s veterinary physical exam revealed no reason for his weight loss. So his veterinarian recommended doing a full blood panel.

Unfortunately, the blood work indicated that Fate was in liver failure. Apparently, there are treatments if the liver disease is caught early enough, but Fate’s disease process was too advanced by the time of diagnosis. His veterinarian described a very poor prognosis. Fate was euthanized a week before I moved to Colorado in late October 2014.

Before the veterinary exam, it didn’t occur to me that there might be something wrong with Fate other than advancing age. He was still eating, drinking and moving around like normal. He was still the herd leader in the pasture. He was still pleasant and cooperative to handle on the ground.

I didn’t see any other signs of illness (besides the weight loss). That doesn’t mean that they weren’t there, of course. Just that I didn’t see any.

Why did he develop liver failure? I still don’t know. What I do know is that before I had him in my backyard for ten years, his previous owner had him in her own backyard for seven.

I remember her telling me that their other horse died of liver failure. Was there an environmental issue on their property that might have contributed to both horses’ eventual deaths? Even ten years apart?

I also know that around 2010 or so, our own pastures developed a buttercup weed infestation. Over the course of a few seasons, Buttercups completely took over the horse’s main pasture, choking out most of the grass. In the photo below, you can see patches of bare ground exposed as the buttercups invaded. It got so bad that I began to feed hay almost year-round even though the horses were on full-time turnout.

To combat the infestation, I ended up having the entire pasture sprayed with weed killer for a couple of years in a row. The spraying saved the pasture. In fact, the pasture is now so lush that I have to keep my horses completely off of it due to one of my horse’s history with laminitis. But Buttercups are known to be poisonous, with the ability to negatively affect the liver. And of course, some chemicals in weed killers are suspected in various types of disease.

Was living for several years in a pasture overtaken by buttercups to blame for Fate’s liver disease? Were the chemical sprays used to kill the buttercups the reason Fate got sick? Did his history of having a former herd-mate with liver failure factor into Fate’s diagnosis? Or was it just a coincidence? I have no answers.

Long story short, I wanted to write about Fate’s story as a cautionary tale. In retrospect, it is easy for me to see that a horse losing condition that quickly likely indicates illness, not advancing age. Hindsight is 20/20.

I think sometimes we just figure an old horse is losing weight because they can’t absorb nutrients like they used to. We aren’t aware or forget that a horse’s weight loss can be indicative of disease. A disease that has nothing to do with their age or how many calories they are consuming.

Though not a common issue, equine liver failure is something I continue to think about. Fate and my horse, Bear, were pasture mates for about nine years. Bear also lived on that same buttercup-infested pasture that was repeatedly sprayed with weed killer.

Of course, if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that Bear is still with me. We just marked our 17-year “anniversary” this month, and he is scheduled to turn 27 this Spring. But he’s approaching the same age Fate was when Fate’s dramatic weight loss occurred. As Bear continues to inch ever closer to 30, the possibility of liver failure stays on my radar.

Want to learn more about equine liver failure beyond the personal experience I described here? Try these resources to get you started:

https://www.merckvetmanual.com/horse-owners/digestive-disorders-of-horses/disorders-of-the-liver-in-horses

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