Recognizing Emergencies

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While most horse owners recognize the common problems associated with horses that are, or can lead to, an emergency situation, some problems are more subtle and might not be immediately recognized as an emergency. Here are some tips from Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital near Lexington, Kentucky, that can help you be prepared and react properly to equine emergencies.

Horse ownership is a rewarding experience that allows an individual to establish a relationship with their animal. This relationship provides some people with a livelihood and others an outlet from their daily work schedule or routine.

Regardless of use or vocation when considering ownership one must be aware of the inherent responsibility that accompanies the ownership of a dependent animal. Adequate shelter, pasture, food, a preventative health plan and specialized tack or equipment are all needed to care for that horse. The individual that coined the phrase “there is no such thing as a free horse” spoke truly and likely from first-hand knowledge.

Although the horse has been domesticated for quite some time, it is still a grazing prey animal whose first reaction to perceived animosity is escape. It is no surprise that medical emergencies in the horse are a common facet of ownership due to their size, strength, athletic ability, unique anatomy and frequent overriding reaction to stimuli. For this reason it is important for horse owners to recognize this risk, be comfortable identifying medical problems and have a plan for such an occurrence thus maximizing the chances for a positive outcome.

One of the most essential factors in the outcome of any equine emergency is time it takes for the problem to be recognized and appropriate treatment to begin. Regardless of etiology or location, the longer a malady goes unrecognized or untreated, the worse the prognosis becomes and the more expensive it becomes to treat.

The physiologic response to trauma, while beneficial in the short term, can cause problems if not resolved. Often secondary bacterial infection complicates resolution of the primary problem.

Allowing a problem to become chronic is directly correlated to increased expense of treatment and inversely correlated to a favorable outcome. Therefore, it is no surprise that the first, and arguably the most important, step in proper care for a horse is to have a relationship with an equine veterinarian. These individuals are available to aid owners in determining what problems need immediate attention and/or referral to a hospital facility while also providing essential recommendations on nutrition, husbandry and preventative health that will reduce the risk of future emergencies.

The second step is for owners to have a general response plan for emergency situations as stress and excitement can override typical cognitive responses.

The final step is to know where an equine hospital is located and the distance or time it will take to transport a horse there. When assessing an emergency, owners should remember to remain calm, stay safe, gather information and supply that information to the veterinarian.

Information that will help your veterinarian evaluate the situation over the phone includes facts such as your horse’s age, gender, and breed; vital signs such as temperature, pulse, respiration, mucous membrane color (color of the gums, if possible to obtain safely), and the duration of the problem.

A normal adult horse should have a temperature between 99.5 and 101.5°F, a pulse or heart rate of 28-44 beats per minute, respiration rate of 12-16 breaths per minute, and a light pink mucous membrane color (although this can be variable).

Horses, like people, have differing vital signs, so it is important for owners to establish what is normal for their horse before an emergency arises. It also is imperative for owners to observe their horse’s normal behavior as horses have unpredictable pain thresholds and sometimes minor changes in behavior can indicate a problem.

Regardless of type of emergency, most animals should be confined in clean, dry stall in order to limit their movement. Owners should also avoid administrating non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as bute or banamine as these drugs may alter your veterinarian’s ability to evaluate your horse.

There are general categories of emergencies that will briefly be discussed.

Musculoskeletal emergencies are common and include lacerations, penetrating foreign bodies and lameness.

Lacerations that are full thickness (or completely through the skin) are often more contaminated than you might suspect, may involve important structures such as tendons, ligaments or joints, and warrant veterinary intervention. The area may be cleaned with tap water and covered with a clean bandage or leg wrap. Applying topical medications are usually unnecessary. If significant hemorrhage or bleeding occurs, the wound should be wrapped snuggly with an absorbent dressing over the wound.

Penetrating foreign bodies either in the hooves or elsewhere are unsightly, but should be left in place to allow your veterinarian to identify what anatomic structures are involved.

Lameness can be caused by many things. A veterinarians should evaluate any lameness that causes the horse to be non-weight-bearing on that limb. The horse could have a simple abscess, but other, more serious injuries (such as fractures or infected joints) often result in the same clinical signs.

Colic, a generic term for abdominal pain, is common and often resolves with veterinary care at the farm. In handling the painful colicky horse it is not necessary to administer mineral oil by mouth, or prevent the horse from rolling by continuous walking as either activity could result in injury to the horse owner. Instead the animal should be placed in an area where they will not injure themselves or become cast (stuck) against a stall or fence and the veterinarian contacted.

Ophthalmic (eye) problems are always a veterinary emergency and often present as tearing, squinting, discharge, swelling or light sensitivity. The eye is a delicate organ and attempts at treatment may result in irreversible damage and should be limited without veterinary instruction.

Choke can be scary for horse owners. If food or water is observed coming out of your horses nostrils, it could be a sign of esophageal obstruction (choke) or dysphagia (problems swallowing). Remove food and water and contact your veterinarian immediately.

Epistaxis (bleeding from the nostrils), ataxia (uncoordinated movements), or inability to stand are all emergencies that also require veterinary attention and all can be caused by a variety of problems.

An equine emergency can be a stressful ordeal for both the horse owner as well as the horse involved. Concise communication of pertinent information and vital signs to your veterinarian will allow him or her to rapidly evaluate the situation and give further instruction until arrival. If horse owners are adequately prepared, they can maximize the probability that their horse will have a positive outcome facilitated by rapid recognition, prompt action and veterinary intervention.