Equine Emergency Care Tips

The first thing most guides on handling emergency situations will tell you to do is be prepared for that emergency. Know what can happen, what you'll do in that situation, who you'll call, what supplies you'll need, etc. For an equine health emergency, the same rules apply--you'll handle it best if you planned for it ahead of time so you understand what necessitates a call to the veterinarian, have the proper first aid supplies on hand, know how to use them, and are familiar with your vet's emergency phone services.

To help horse owners prepare for a horse health emergency, Mark Fitch, DVM, of Boulder, Colo., demonstrated emergency first aid procedures and discussed tips for various situations during the Healthy Horses Workshop (held Dec. 2 in San Antonio, Texas, in conjunction with the 52nd annual American Association of Equine Practitioners Convention).

Hoof Puncture Wounds

"If your horse has a non-weight-bearing lameness, make sure he doesn't have a nail or something in his foot," suggested Fitch. "If he does, remove it, then make a map (drawing) of the foot showing where the puncture is. Draw it out so there's no confusion (was it to the horses' left, or your left?) and make an X where the object was. We can usually find it, but it can be tough, especially in the frog--it's spongy enough that you might not easily see where the object was."

Although some veterinarians ask that owners leave penetrating objects in place so they can see how deep the puncture goes, Fitch doesn't prefer this. "I don't like to recommend leaving them in place in case the horse damages himself further with more steps on it," he said. "Unless you're going to hold the foot up until the veterinarian gets there, take it out. I have never had one that got 100% sound after the tendon sheath was compromised (by a puncture wound), and if it isn't already compromised, I don't want to risk it. If it's in the joint, you'll probably see synovial fluid running out the nail hole when you take it out."

Know How to Call Your Vet

"It's important for people to learn the emergency phone procedures for their veterinarian's service, with all the phones, cell phones, after-hours answering services, pagers, etc., that are out there," he stated. "In our practice, if you listen to the whole message, it takes three to four minutes to listen to all the options. The emergency information is first, but if you are waiting through all the options for a service when you've got an emergency, it seems like an eternity. Or your veterinarian might prefer that you call a cell phone number after hours instead of the office.

Wrapping Feet and Lower Legs

If your horse wounds a hoof, protecting the area from dirt and worse is a high priority. Fitch demonstrated using a disposable diaper to protect injuries to the bottom of the foot. "They conform to the foot real easily," he said. "Apply ELASTIKON (stretchy bandaging tape) over that, then you can cover it with duct tape for more protection."

When the wound is further up on the leg in the heel bulb or pastern area, wrapping can be more of a challenge. Bandages like to scrunch together in the pastern area if you don't make sure to get some of the wrapping well below the heel bulb, said Fitch.

Wrapping Legs

The typical lower leg standing bandage, whether for wounds, injuries, or just protection, needs some padding, said Fitch. "We use sheet cotton--it provides extra cushion, plus it absorbs any discharge from a wound," he explained. "And the padding helps keep you from wrapping too tight and causing a 'bandage bow.' This is an ischemic injury (one caused by a lack of blood flow); the bandage acts like a tourniquet if you get it really tight. Most bandage bows don't actually hurt the tendon, but you get a lot of swelling in the peritendinous tissues (those next to the tendon). If you sweat these a little, the swelling goes right down.

However, tendon damage can occur with too-tight wraps; he recalled one owner wrapped all four of her horse's legs and ended up with three damaged tendons.

What about sports medicine support wraps or boots to prevent injury? "If those are tight enough to restrict motion, they're too tight--use them only for short periods," he recommends. "If they're tight enough to restrict motion, they hamper movement enough to affect performance. If that really worked, you'd see them on every racehorse. They just don't make a boot that can prevent injury like a bowed tendon.

"The reality is that most horses get injured when they get tired," Fitch said. "Watch out for that--as they get tired from hard work, they start to stumble or take bad steps. At that point, they are susceptible to injury."

The exception to this rule is splint boots, which do help prevent leg wounds, he said. Splint boots prevent traumatic injuries from interfering (when one hoof hits the other leg).

Snakebite, Fire Evacuation, IV Shots, and More

Fitch described what to do in a variety of situations involving potential equine emergencies.

Snakebite "Don't worry so much about a tourniquet, as this can do more damage," said Fitch. "Just keep the horse as calm as you can and call your veterinarian; don't move the horse and stimulate more circulation (of the venom throughout the horse's body). Antivenom will be the most beneficial part of the treatment. It can be purchased at human hospital emergency rooms. It's pretty expensive, but it's worth it."

Fire "I don't recommend blindfolds to lead a horse out of a burning barn; they won't necessarily follow you easily," Fitch said. "But if you moisten those towels and put them over his nose, that can help protect his airways. Once they lose those mucosa (airway linings) to the heat, there are lots of problems with infection."

Intravenous (IV) injection emergency Do you give your own IV shots? The horse's jugular vein (where most IV shots are given) runs very close to his carotid artery. "If you put an IV medication in the carotid artery, the horse will likely die because the medication will go straight to his brain," warned Fitch. "If you go up high on the neck, the chances of hitting the carotid artery are a lot less."

Proud flesh This occurs when excessive granulation tissue in a wound builds up above the normal skin level, he explained. "The problem with this is that skin edges that normally would migrate over the wound won't go over the hill," said Fitch. "It's not a big problem; you just debride (cut away or apply medication to reduce) the excess tissue and it will heal. We use HYDRASORB dressing (a highly absorbent foam dressing) or Panalog ointment (a combination antimicrobial and steroid)."

Get research and health news from the American Association of Equine Practitioners 2006 Convention in The Horse's AAEP 2006 Wrap-Up sponsored by OCD Equine. Files are available as free PDF downloads.

About the Author

Christy M. West

Christy West has a BS in Equine Science from the University of Kentucky, and an MS in Agricultural Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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