Equine Emergencies

Colic is what most horse owners dread. Generally, colic is abdominal pain caused by constipation (impaction), diarrhea (colitis, enteritis), stone (enterolith), twist/torsion and sand. Other non-GI reasons are labor, pneumonia, viruses, liver disease, kidney disease, tying up and abdominal abscess.

Colic has a multitude of symptoms such as not eating a meal, lying down excessively, pawing, rolling, sweating, standing in a corner, shaking, decreased to no manure output and decreased water intake.   

What to do? If the horse is rolling — get him up, start walking and have someone call a veterinarian right away. Otherwise, isolate the colicky horse from other horses, remove any leftover feed, clean the corral so you can identify new manure piles and give plenty of fresh water.

Next, if you are able, take the horse’s temperature, check the gum color, listen for gut sounds, take a heart rate and then call your veterinarian.

Colic is much easier to assess over the phone if the veterinarian has a few facts. Most importantly, colic should not be ignored. It could turn into a very serious condition leading to IV fluids, surgery, and, the unthinkable, euthanasia.

Respiratory Distress is another emergency. It can occur due to pneumonia, allergic asthma, strangles or a snake bite. Symptoms are nares flaring, increased amount of respirations, a bug-eyed (worried) appearance and abdominal sides displaying extreme effort during respirations (heaving). Horses may also be off their feed due to discomfort.

Allergic asthma generally occurs during warmer days and may be associated with winds (Santa Anas). Usually there is no fever present, although occasionally a low grade fever occurs due to the effort and stress of the labored breathing. Strangles may be associated with fever, nasal discharge, abscesses draining under mandible and a thickened throatlatch. Horses with strangles-related breathing problems will have an audible rattle/noise in their throat since the problem is physical obstruction of the upper respiratory tract.

Pneumonia may be a silent disease, or may be accompanied by fever, nasal discharge, cough, malaise and off feed. Generally, a physical exam by a veterinarian and blood work can distinguish the cause.

Snakebites are usually obvious due to the extreme swelling of the muzzle. The danger is that the nares may swell shut, and, since horses are obligate nasal breathers, this is an emergency. What to do? Call the veterinarian immediately.

Equine choke may look like a colic or respiratory distress. Equine choke occurs when a bolus of food becomes lodged in the esophagus. Common signs are not eating, foamy (and sometimes green tinged) saliva running out of their nose and mouth and some level of distress. If the horse cannot resolve it within a short period of time, the veterinarian needs to be called. Post-choking episode concerns are recurrence of choke, aspiration pneumonia and colic.

Lacerations/Cuts occur for a variety of reasons: fence entanglements, puncture wounds from pipe corral bolts, feeders, blanket entanglement, kick and bite wounds, trailer incidents, etc.  

The owner can treat minor abrasions by cleaning with betadine solution and sterile saline. Pat dry with gauze, and apply a bandage or wound spray.However, there are a few important items to consider:  tetanus vaccination status, hemorrhage (bleeding), wound size and location, pain level and type of discharge present.  

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