When to Call the Vet?

Any list of clinical signs, conditions, or circumstances that should trigger a call for veterinary help could be endless. Due to the many subtleties and variables involved in episodes of injury or illness, a "do call vs. don't call checklist" approach to equine health care can also lead to overlooked clinical signs, treatment delays, and unfortunate outcomes. For example, foals demand greater attention when sick or injured, since their bodies are often less forgiving of treatment delays than those of adult horses.

When one also considers the varying abilities of owners to observe and interpret a patient's medical condition, the best action for a horse owner when presented with a possible emergency is to call and report the horse's condition to an equine veterinarian, who will advise you regarding the appropriate level of concern.

However, you may consider four levels of concern when confronted with a sick or injured horse to help focus thinking and decision-making based on specific clinical signs and circumstances:

Level 1--Critical: Immediate call to a veterinarian

  • Non-weight-bearing lameness, e.g., a fracture;
  • Sudden/severe inability to breathe normally; rapid, distressed asth-matic breathing or an obviously obstructed upper airway;
  • Persistent bleeding from an orifice or wound;
  • Severe or persistent colicky behavior; very important to call early due to the progressive course and high risk of many colic cases;
  • Sudden onset of severe neurological dysfunction, e.g., staggering, lack of coordination, or profound behavior change;
  • Sudden onset of blindness, obvious eye trauma, or unwillingness to open the eyelids;
  • Any mare who takes longer than 30 minutes to complete her second stage of labor (delivery of the foal);
  • Acute laminitis;
  • Trauma at or near vital structures such as eyes, genitals, major nerves and vessels (e.g., the throatlatch), or orthopedic com-ponents (joints, tendons, ligaments, synovial compartments);
  • Trauma in need of immediate attention for cosmetic reasons;
  • High fever; or
  • Heat stroke.

Level 2--Urgent: Call that day or the next morning

These conditions need prompt attention, but can usually be managed with prescribed first aid until a vet can see the horse:

  • Low-grade fever;
  • Sudden onset of lameness that is weight-bearing;
  • Trauma that is superficial, away from vital structures, not compromising normal vital function, and not in need of immediate attention for cosmetic reasons;
  • Signs of less severe colic such as poor appetite, dullness, and/or diminished fecal passage;
  • Flare-ups of chronic laminitis; or
  • Flare-ups of chronic inflammatory respiratory disease.

Level 3--Elective: Request care on a scheduled basis

  • Intermittent and slight lameness;
  • Persistent dermatitis (skin problems);
  • Intermittent and slight eye discharge with no sign of pain or poor vision;
  • Reduced appetite with no other clinical signs;
  • Slight difficulty chewing; or
  • Slight nasal discharge with no fever or labored breathing.

Level 4--Preventive: Regular preventive care

Preventive care includes regular, routinely scheduled physical examinations, immunizations, parasite control, dental care, nutritional program evaluations, and general husbandry.

Minimize the risk of emergency calls and keep your horse in good health by adopting a proactive, preventive health care approach and welfare via a structured wellness program.

Your horse's health care team includes his owner and/or caregiver, trainer, farrier, and equine veterinarian. This team of profession-als can work together to structure a wellness program that best meets the needs of your horse. Each team member is familiar with your horse and contributes a critical knowledge base.

And finally, even if your horse is not directly under your care at a home farm, you are still the captain of the health care team. Be sure to provide any caregivers with the information and materials they need to care for your horse in case of emergency:

  • Clear instructions about what to do if you are not available to consult about your horse's medical condition or injury;
  • A written authorization on file with your chosen veterinarian enabling the caregiver to arrange for veterinary care;
  • The veterinarian's name and contact phone number;
  • Information about equine insurance coverage (mortality, medical/surgical, etc.) including contact names and numbers; and
  • Information on haulers and an authorization to arrange for any necessary emergency transport to a veterinary facility.

Work with your health care team and plan a preventive approach to health care and sound preparation for emergencies to keep your horse healthy and active!

About the Author

Harry Werner, VMD

Harry W. Werner, VMD, is a Connecticut equine practitioner with special interests in lameness, purchase examinations, wellness care, and owner education. Dedicated staff, continuing education and technological advances enable his practice to offer high-quality patient care and client service in a smaller, general equine practice environment. A committed AAEP member since 1979, Dr. Werner is has served as AAEP Vice President and, in 2009, as AAEP President, and he is a past president of the Connecticut Veterinary Medical Association.

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