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Objective—To determine signalment, history, clinical signs, duration, seasonality, and response to various treatments reported by owners for headshaking in horses.

Design—Owner survey.

Animals—109 horses with headshaking.

Procedure—Owners of affected horses completed a survey questionnaire.

Results—78 affected horses were geldings, 29 were mares, and 2 were stallions. Mean age of onset was 9 years. Headshaking in 64 horses had a seasonal component, and for most horses, headshaking began in spring and ceased in late summer or fall. The most common clinical signs were shaking the head in a vertical plane, acting like an insect was flying up the nostril, snorting excessively, rubbing the muzzle on objects, having an anxious expression while headshaking, worsening of clinical signs with exposure to sunlight, and improvement of clinical signs at night. Treatment with antihistamines, nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drugs, corticosteroids, antimicrobials, fly control, chiropractic, and acupuncture had limited success. Sixty-one horses had been treated with cyproheptadine; 43 had moderate to substantial improvement.

Conclusions and Clinical Relevance—Headshaking may have many causes. A large subset of horses have similar clinical signs including shaking the head in a vertical plane, acting as if an insect were flying up the nostrils, and rubbing the muzzle on objects. Seasonality and worsening of clinical signs with exposure to light are also common features of this syndrome. Geldings and Thoroughbreds appear to be overrepresented. Cyproheptadine treatment was beneficial in more than two thirds of treated horses. (J Am Vet Med Assoc 2001;219:334–337)

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in Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association


Case Description—A 15-year-old Saddlebred gelding used for competitive pleasure driving had a 1-year history of head shaking while pulling a cart.

Clinical Findings—The horse had cystic corpora nigra in both eyes and concomitant classic and operant conditioned responses to wearing a bridle with bilateral eye covers (blinkers).

Treatment and Outcome—Deflation and coagulation of the cysts with an infrared diode laser and behavior modification consisting of desensitization and counterconditioning were used to successfully restore performance.

Clinical Relevance—Behavioral changes in horses can result from a combination of physical and psychologic causes. A combination of appropriate medical treatment of physical abnormalities and a behavioral modification plan is necessary to successfully treat behavioral problems in these patients.

Full access
in Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association