- Equine Emergencies – What You Need to Know
Colic is one of the most common emergencies and is the leading cause of death among horses. Colic is not a disease but rather a general term referring to all forms of abdominal (GI) pain. Colic can range in severity from gas bubbles to bowel ruptures.
While rolling around may be a sign that a horse is trying to alleviate discomfort from colic, rolling around is also a regular activity, so it is not always the most reliable indicator. Other signs your horse may suffer from colic include restlessness, kicking or biting at the stomach, difficulty passing or abnormal manure, and decreased eating and drinking habits.
Most colic cases are unpreventable, but you can implement several measures to reduce the risk of colic. If you suspect your horse may be suffering from colic, you can help them ease their pain by walking them, giving them an open space to roll around without injuring themselves, and removing food and water from their area as it may cause further discomfort if ingested.
Choke and Respiratory Distress
Choke occurs when food causes a blockage in the throat, resulting in discomfort, heavy breathing, coughing, and oral or nasal mucus discharge. Choke is commonly caused by feed, such as pellets, that horses tend to eat quickly.
Luckily, choke does tend to resolve itself after a short time, but it is a good idea to keep an eye on your horse in case assistance is needed. While waiting for choke to resolve, we recommend removing your horse's feed so they are less likely to worsen the problem by consuming more food.
Respiratory distress presents similarly to choke with quick, shallow breaths and anxious or distressed movements. However, respiratory distress differs from choke in that something external, such as a perceived threat, is causing the distress and not lodged food. In these situations, it is best to help your horse calm down by removing whatever sparked the distress and contacting your vet for emergency care.
Horse hoofs are surrounded by insensitive and sensitive tissue (laminae) that connect the hoof wall to the foot – similar to how our fingernails (insensitive) are connected to our fingers (sensitive). It is incredibly common for these tissues to become inflamed and extremely painful – this is called laminitis.
The clearest sign that your horse is experiencing laminitis is lameness. You may notice your horse shifting their weight to their back legs rather than their front legs or positioning their front and back feet closer together rather than spread out. You may also notice shortened stride or reluctance to move or lift the foot.
While there are several causes of laminitis, it is common for it to arise out of unknown reasons. Laminitis can develop quickly (within 24-72 hours) through 4 phases: developmental, acute, subacute, and chronic (from which few horses are likely to recover fully). Treatment includes removing predisposing factors like large grain or grass intake or obesity, trimming the hoof back, elevating the heel above the toe, administering pain relievers (as prescribed by a veterinarian), and increasing blood flow to the foot.
Heat exhaustion can occur due to several factors, such as over-exercising, poor stall ventilation, obesity, and of course, hot weather. Here in South Carolina, we get some hot summers, and while we may be able to retreat indoors to the crisp, cool air conditioning, our horses do not get the same luxury. Heat exhaustion becomes a danger when the temperature outside added to humidity levels equals 150 or more – resulting in conditions that inhibit your horse's ability to regulate its temperature.
A horse suffering from heat exhaustion may exhibit increased sweating, labored breathing, increased heart rate, or stumbling. To treat heat exhaustion, get your horse into a cool area and provide them with cool water and electrolytes. You can spray your horse with cool water to help them return to a normal temperature. And you can also monitor their rectal temperature until it reaches normal levels of 99-101°F.
You can read a more in-depth account of heat exhaustion in horses and how to prevent it in our earlier blog post.
As with all potential health problems, the best defense is a good offense – meaning it's best to know what emergencies you're likely to face as a horse owner and how to properly handle them so your horse can get back to running and galloping around as soon as possible. There are a few things you can do to be proactive about your horse's care and minimize emergencies: know how to take your horse's vital signs, have an essential horse first-aid kit (you can buy a pre-packed kit or make one yourself!), and take the time to learn your horses "normal," so you can quickly identify the abnormal, and call your vet with your concerns. And, of course, ensure that any veterinarian or pet care provider you contact has experience in equine care.
Lucky for you, we have experience with horses, and we would love to care for them! If you're worried about someone being able to monitor your horse for all of these risks even when you're away, check out our services page to learn more about our pet sitting and care services, or book us directly for a visit here.