Equine Emergencies: What to Look for – and What to Do
The following are some of the most common emergencies we see as equine veterinarians.
- Colic: Colic is a broad term that stands for abdominal discomfort or pain. There are many causes of colic, and they often differ in their prognosis.
What to look for: Loss of appetite, rolling, flank watching, pawing, getting up and down, stretching out to urinate, and straining to defecate.
What to do: Pull all your horse’s food. Call us and describe the signs you are seeing. If you have banamine, we may instruct you to give your horse banamine orally (never give in the muscle). We will then likely head in your direction to fully assess the situation.
- Lacerations: Even the smallest of cuts can cause life and career threatening problems if they are in the wrong place. Puncture wounds can seed a foreign body into deep tissues or initiate cellulitis (an infection of the fascial planes of the connective tissues).
What to look for: Check your horse daily for any cuts, scrapes, or abrasions. If they involve deep tissues, or if they are near a joint or tendon sheath, they will need emergency veterinary attention.
What to do: Call us if the cut is deep, and if it may involve a joint, tendon, ligament, or tendon sheath. Your horse may also need a tetanus booster if he/she hasn’t received one in over 6 months. Most lacerations heal best if they are stitched together in the first 8-12 hours.
- Fever: A horse’s normal temperature is 99°F to 101°F. Fever often, but not always, accompanies a more severe disease.
What to look for: Horses with fevers often have a decreased appetite and are lethargic or depressed. Sometimes they also have an elevated respiratory rate.
What to do: Call us! We will help you assess the situation and develop the best plan of action. We will likely administer a fever reducing medication and run blood work. We will also do a complete physical exam to help us determine if and what type of antibiotics your horse needs.
- Swollen, painful eye: Two of the most common eye problems we see are corneal ulcerations and uveitis (inflammation of the anterior chamber of the eye). Both need immediate veterinary attention to improve your chances of saving your horse’s vision and normal ocular function.
What to look for: Squinting, tearing, swelling of the eyelids, cloudiness in the eye.
What to do: Call us! Inflammation of the eye is not only extremely painful, it can also threaten the eye’s overall health. When the eye is inflamed, the pupil constricts, and if not treated, it can remain shut forever causing permanent blindness.
- Non-weight-bearing lameness: A non-weight-bearing lameness can be caused by many things. It can be very serious and need immediate attention. The most common causes of this condition include hoof abscesses, cellulitis, fracture, and severe tendon or ligament injury.
What to look for: If your horse will let you touch the leg, see if it is warm or swollen, or if there is a specific area that seems to be affected. Also, look over the leg for any signs of injury.
What to do: Call us! Hopefully, your horse just has a hoof abscess that needs to be open, drained, soaked, and poulticed. However, the other causes of acute, non-weight bearing lameness, such as cellulitis, may need antibiotics, a fracture would need stabilization, assessment, and possible referral, and a tendon or ligament injury will need support, rest, and anti-inflammatories.
- Respiratory distress: Acute respiratory distress may occur as part of a non-infectious inflammatory airway disease (heaves), an obstruction of the trachea, or an infectious respiratory disease.
What to look for: Increased respiratory rate and effort, flared nostrils, heaving sides; may or may not be accompanied by a cough.
What to do: Call us! Your horse needs to breathe! We may need to give an injection of steroids to rapidly decrease inflammation in the case of heaves or place a temporary tracheotomy if his main airway is obstructed. If the cause is infectious, we will likely run blood work and start him on anti-inflammatories and antibiotics.
- Dystocia (difficult birth): A dystocia is a life-threatening condition for a mare and her foal.
What to look for: Once your mare starts pushing, the foal should be out in half an hour. You should see a white bag (red is an emergency). The foal should present its two front hooves first followed by its nose. If the feet are uneven, if there is only one foot, no feet, or a tail instead of feet, the foal is not positioned properly to be delivered safely.
What to do: Call us! Your mare will need assistance in delivering her foal. We may also direct you to the nearest referral clinic as time is of the essence when dealing with dystocia.
- Acute neurologic signs: this can be caused by traumatic injury, toxins, parasites, virus, and liver disease to name a few.
What to look for: Uncoordination, head tilt, falling over, rapid, uncoordinated eye movement, seizing, circling.
What to do: Stay safe! Keep children, pets, and other by standers away from the horse as they cannot control their movements and may unintentionally hurt someone. Isolate the horse from other horses if possible, especially if it has had recent exposures to other horses at shows or competitions, etc. Call us so we can assess the situation and administer the appropriate care.