How Can I Tell if My Horse Needs Stitches?

How Can I Tell if My Horse Needs Stitches?

Full thickness lacerations heal faster and with less scarring when they're sutured.

Photo: Alexandra Beckstett, The Horse Managing Editor

Q. If my horse gets a cut, how can I tell if it's severe enough to require a veterinarian's attention and stitches? Also if a laceration does need stitches, how soon after the injury happens does a vet need to see (and suture) it?

Randy, Washington

A. There are a few good ways to decide whether a horse’s wound needs veterinary attention:

1. As in real estate, think location, location, location! If there is a wound over a joint, tendon, or eye, it very well may need to be seen even if it doesn’t look “bad.”  

2. What kind of a wound is it? An abrasion is a wound that takes off the superficial layer of skin but doesn’t gap when you spread the edges. A superficial or partial-thickness skin laceration might look like a sharp cut, but when you spread the edges it doesn’t open. These generally don’t need to be seen by a veterinarian. However, a laceration that’s full thickness through the skin will gap when you spread the edges, and it usually heals fastest with the least amount of scarring when sutured. 

A puncture wound can be very dangerous because it might look like nothing but can travel deep into important tissues. We don’t suture these but do flush and explore them to ensure the puncturing objects haven’t hit any important structures.

3. The fresher a laceration is when it is sutured, the better it will heal. The location of the wound might also dictate how well it can be sutured if it’s not fresh. If it’s in an area where there’s not a lot of stretchy or redundant skin, such as on the back of a tendon or the front of a leg, letting a wound sit for 24 hours prior to suturing could be too long. If it’s in a more forgiving location, such as the pectoral (chest) region, we can trim skin edges and suture the wound when it’s a bit further out from the incident. The longer a wound sits, the more the tissues swell, and that can also make suturing difficult or impossible.  

Cell phone cameras have made this decision-making process much easier. I frequently ask my clients to text or email me photos of a wound so I can help make the decision about whether I need to see the horse. 

About the Author

Liz Arbittier, VMD

Liz Arbittier, VMD, is a clinical assitant professor of Equine Field Service at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine's New Bolton Center, in Kennett Square.

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