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Your Horse's Vital Signs


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As an equine enthusiast, you've probably experienced a situation when your horse just didn't "look right" or was "acting funny." If you called your veterinarian, it's likely he or she asked you to take the horse's temperature. Never done it before? We asked Julie Mason, DVM, Wilhite & Frees of Peculiar, Mo., for some tips on taking a horse's temperature and determining other key vital signs.

Why is it important to take a horse's vital signs?

Unfortunately, like other animals, horses can't talk and aren't very good at telling us when they don't feel well. That's where you come in – the first rule of thumb is to be observant. Know your horse's habits because the first, and maybe only, sign of discomfort, could be a change in behavior, such as not eating or not working as well as normal. Once you've noticed a change in behavior, being able to take your horse's vital signs can help you determine if the situation is an emergency requiring immediate veterinary attention or if you can continue to just observe the horse. But if you have any doubt, always call your veterinarian.

How do I take a horse's temperature?

To take your horse's temperature, first lubricate the end of a thermometer (you can use any drugstore variety) with petroleum jelly. Standing to the side of the horse, move the tail to one side and insert the thermometer pointed slightly toward the ground. Many of the new digital thermometers on the market beep when ready. Normal temperature range is 99 – 101.1 degrees. A higher than normal temperature can be an indication of infection or some other type of inflammation in the body. Be sure to clean the thermometer between uses.

How do I take a horse's pulse?

he horse's pulse or heart rate can be found in two places: under the jawbone and behind the left elbow. You can use your hand to feel the pulse or a stethoscope to listen to the heart rate. The normal pulse of a horse at rest is 28 to 40 beats per minute. The heart rate may increase during and right after exercise, if the horse is excited and sometimes, if the horse is in pain. It's a good idea to take your horse's pulse so you have a baseline.

How do I determine a horse's respiration rate?

On average, a horse takes eight to 16 breaths per minute. To count those breaths, simply watch the flank area or the horse's nostrils. If you can, have your veterinarian show you how to feel a digital pulse in your horse's feet. That can be especially important if the horse has any tendencies toward laminitis.

I've heard a lot about 'gut' sounds. What exactly are these?

Horses have a very complicated and delicate digestion system and are prone to colic. To listen for gut sounds, put your stethoscope against the horse's flank area. You should hear occasional, low rumblings on both sides of the horse. You should hear sounds of some kind at least every 20 – 30 seconds. If you don't hear any noise at all, consult your veterinarian.

What is capillary refill time and how do I check it?

The capillary refill time (CRT) is the amount of time it takes for the blood to return to the tissues after you pinch the gum. To check the CRT, take the horse's upper lip and place your thumb on his gums, pressing hard enough to make it white. When you release, the blood should come back to the surface within one to two seconds. If it takes longer than that, it could be one of several issues, including dehydration, shock or infection.

What things can I do to be prepared for an emergency?

it's really good to know what is "normal" for your horse. Take a few minutes to record your horse's vital signs when it appears healthy. You might think you'll remember them, but it's best to write them down. Stow that information with your emergency kit, which should include the following:

  • Stethoscope
  • Thermometer
  • Bandage scissors
  • Weight tape
  • Scrub
  • Alcohol
  • Gloves
  • 60 cc flush syringe (catheter tip)
  • Triple antibiotic
  • Artificial tears
  • Flashlight/batteries
  • Hoof pick
  • Elastikon
  • White tape
  • Duct tape
  • Leg cotton
  • Kerlix roll gauze
  • Brown gauze
  • 3 x 4 telfa pads
  • 3 x 8 telfa pads
  • Sterile saline
  • Diapers
  • Animalintex
  • Vet wrap

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