Checking the Vitals: Is My Horse Sick? How Sick?

Being familiar with your horse's normal resting temperature, pulse, and respiration rates (TPR) help you recognize when things are abnormal. The TPR vitals help you determine "how abnormal." Remember, vitals taken after the horse has been worked will be elevated and a 20-30 minute recovery time is recommended for a return to normal values and an assessment of fitness. Not unlike when we started this series of articles with a "vitals" overview, we now have enough information to be either dangerous or have gained a respect for the level of the stewardship that goes with caring for a horse.

Unless obvious clinical signs are present such as coughing, nasal discharge, colicky behavior, etc., it can be difficult to know if your horse is sick. However, a complete change in your horse's attitude can be an indicator of illness. Routine assessment of vital signs will help you identify objective numbers which will help you recognize when you horse is sick, and in many instances, how sick.

Let's develop some clinical scenarios that help you communicate with your veterinarian. We'll use the same clinical complaint of “not eating” for each situation. If your horse lives outside all day long, you may not know if your horse is eating unless you take grain to the pasture or bring your horse up to the barn and separate him from the herd to eat. For this particular set of scenarios lets say you bring horses into the barn every evening to eat grain, separating them all so that each one receives a set quantity of feed in a stall. You notice that one of your horses has not touched his feed and so you take his vitals:

Scenario A:
Horse displays a lack of obvious distress. Temperature 100.6ºF, heart rate 48 beats per minute, respiratory rate 12 breaths per minute, and mucus membranes look normal with a normal capillary refill time (1-2 seconds). Intestinal sounds are present. You relay this information to your veterinarian who instructs you to take the feed away and take vitals again in one hour. You do this and the values are unchanged except the heart rate is now 40 beats per minute, there is manure in the stall, and the horse is nickering for feed. You report to your veterinarian, return the horse to his normal routine, monitor his vitals, and feed intake closely for the next few days, and everyone has a good nights' sleep.

Scenario B:
Temperature 100.6ºF, heart rate 80 beats per minute, respiratory rate 16 breaths per minute, membrane color is bluish with a capillary refill time of three seconds. Intestinal sounds are absent on the left side. No signs of laminitis. The telephone call to the veterinarian results in him making an immediate trip to the farm. That 80 beats per minute heart rate (along with the membrane color and capillary refill time) was the alarm going off.

Scenario C:
Temperature 98.1ºF, heart rate 56 beats per minute, respiratory rate 20 breaths per minute, membranes are pale in color and do not blanch when checking for the capillary refill time. Abdominal sounds are present, but weak. The veterinarian is called, as this is an impending emergency based on the vitals assessment with internal hemorrhage suspected.

Scenario D:
Temperature 104.4ºF, heart rate 40 beats per minute, respiratory rate 20 breaths per minute, membrane color is slightly reddish with a capillary refill time of 1-2 seconds. The horse is bright, eating, and abdominal sounds are present. The veterinarian instructs you to administer an anti-inflammatory medication for the fever then take the vitals again in 1 hour. One hour later the temperature is 102.2ºF , heart rate is the same, and the respiratory rate is 16 breaths per minute. The veterinarian suspects either a viral or bacterial pneumonia and schedules a visit for the following morning.

Scenario E:
You notice your horse has a rapid nostril flare when he's brought into the barn. Temperature 102.8ºF , heart rate 56 beats per minute, respiratory rate 64 breaths per minute. Mucus membranes are reddish, capillary refill time one second. The horse has no interest in the feed tub. You skip listening to the abdomen and call your veterinarian. Similar complaints have been occurring in the area and a suspected heat stroke or anhydrosis (lack of sweating) is suspected. The recommendation is to hose the horse down and retake the vitals in 30 minutes. After following these directions, the temperature is 101ºF, heart rate 40 beats per minute, respiratory rate 16 breaths per minute. The horse is kept cool in the barn and the veterinarian is scheduled to do a sweat test in the morning.

You get the picture: If you don't look, you don't learn. Contact with your veterinarian is pivotal and the vitals let everyone know if your horse is sick. If your horse is very sick your veterinarian has the ancillary resources of additional field diagnostics and laboratory access.

Money and time management are more efficient because of the vitals information and you and your veterinarian become an educated team. The "team" works on behalf of the horse, a deaf-mute by our standards, who is now subject to improved vigilance and communications.

Reprinted with permission from the Kentucky Horse Council.

About the Author

Doug Byars, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM

Doug Byars, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM, is Director of the medicine clinic at Hagyard-Davidson-McGee equine practice in Lexington, Ky.

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