Thursday, May 21, 2009

Fitz' Story

One of our resident Thoroughbreds has shown up in several recent photos, but we’ve never posted his story.

Fitzhugh Lee (left) is a big, hefty 26 year old Thoroughbred gelding. He arrived late last summer, but its only in the past few weeks that he’s really come into his glory.

Fitz’ road to TREES began when his owners could no longer pay to board him at a stable in Maryland. Early in his story, the sanctuary had no space for another horse, but arranged to pay for a dentist visit to check his teeth. The big gelding was a little thin and had trouble gaining weight. The initial idea was to give him a good float, make sure he didn't have any cracked, loose, or infected teeth and hope that might help him gain weight, making finding a new home easier.

The dentist called while she was with Fitz to ask just how much work we wanted to fund. His needs went way beyond a routine float. (In the end she donated most of her time...he made a big impression on her.) He had several infected teeth and she said his whole bottom jaw felt somehow unstable. The supervising veterinarian even theorized that Fitz’ jaw may have been recently fractured. At that visit, one tooth was removed and the dentist and vet returned several weeks later to extract a second. That helped and Fitz began to gain some weight.

As several months passed, space became available at TREES, and arrangements were made to accept Fitz into the sanctuary.

Soon after his arrival, based on the unstable jaw comments, we had Fitz’ jaw x-rayed. Some areas looked like they could have been healed cracks in the jawbone, but it wasn't clear what might have happened or when. More significant was that Fitz’ teeth, particularly his incisors, were not normal and he had serious periodontal disease.

During the first several months he was here, Fitz just seemed "not right" in general. He sweat a lot when it wasn't very hot. He had a serious systemic reaction to vaccinations (sweating, colic, fever, etc,) he got very winded after trotting only a few yards, and his gums became bright crimson with a tiny bit of exercise. And he had a significant heart murmur. When we spoke with the vet about these symptoms, she immediately scheduled a cardiac ultrasound. Nothing appeared to be wrong with the heart valves, so the vets kept looking for the cause of the murmur. Finally, they got to the "bottom" of his heart and there was a large bacterial infection in one of his ventricles.

Meanwhile, since he was sedated for the ultrasound, the vets took a closer look at Fitz’ teeth. His gums were receding so much that the roots of two teeth were almost entirely exposed. One had a huge tartar cap on it that was so hard it took a Dremel to drill through it and break it apart. (We've since heard this abnormal tartar buildup called a "cementoblast.") As the vet drilled into the cementoblast, the bit went right through what should have been tooth behind it and into dead bone. The infection in the tooth had moved into the bone and caused some decay. A second infected incisor was also removed, but there was no bone involvement in relation to that one. That left one more incisor with most of the root exposed, but it still seemed to be firmly in place and not infected, so it was left alone for the time being.

We treated Fitz’ heart infection for the first time the last half of December and all seemed well. Last month, however, during a routine exam at vaccination time, the vet was not happy with Fitz’ heart sounds, so we treated again, this time for four weeks. Somewhere during the third week, Fitz suddenly started to pack on weight. So much so that we've cut his food back by half and may need to cut back more. He’s confident, full of energy and showing a playful side we hadn’t seen before.

All of Fitz's problems ultimately related to his teeth. As happens in dogs, cats and humans, it appears that the infected teeth, gums, and bone led to a systemic infection that led to the bacterial colony in his heart.

All the information the dentist was able to find on similar cases points to this periodontal issue being chronic. Fitz will need to be monitored for that frequently, and may eventually lose more incisors. Theories say it’s likely related to an underlying endocrine abnormality, (Cushings would be one possibility, though we haven't seen any other symptoms of that) leading to a suppressed immune system in general.

For now, though, our big Thoroughbred is feeling better than he has in some time.

Once again, thank you to our incredible vets who don’t view age as the primary reason behind things like lethargy or weight loss. Older horses may be more prone to certain illnesses than younger horses, but old age itself is not a disease. If your elder horse seems “off” and someone tells you “he’s just old,” but you feel there is more to it than that, please don’t hesitate to get a second opinion. After all, nobody knows your horse as well as you know him.

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