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When to Call the Vet for Your Horse

I have made it clear that, although I am a retired veterinarian, I am constantly evaluating my ability to properly assess and treat any medical issue that arises with my horses. For one thing, I never practiced equine medicine. Secondly, I retired long ago. Lastly, when it comes to my animals, I have a skewed perspective. However, what about you? Do you know when to call the vet for your horse?

I touched on this subject once before when I addressed Equine Immune Mediated Keratitis. In that post, I stated that eye issues are an emergency. Any of the following symptoms should prompt you to call your veterinarian: tearing, blinking, squinting, cloudiness, discoloration, swelling, or any other sign of eye trauma. This article provides additional details about some of the more subtle changes that can occur.

A word about the pros and cons of the internet
when to call the vet for your horse

Before I describe other scenarios for when to call the vet for your horse, I want to address the value, and risk, of using “Dr. Google.” I first heard the term “Dr. Google” at a veterinary conference.

Over 20 years ago, when the internet was still in its infancy, I developed neuropathy in my lower legs. I had numbness and tingling in my quadriceps muscles. I had trained for and recently completed the Avon Breast Cancer 60-mile 3-day walk. I called a neurologist that I knew and described my symptoms. He said, (among other things) that it could be Multiple Sclerosis! Talk about freaking me out!

I immediately plugged “tingling and numb legs” into the Google search bar. The first bazillion pages that came up discussed MS. I was very scared. I was able to schedule a doctor’s appointment for 8 AM the next morning.

After examining me, the doctor walked over to her desk, scribbled something on a piece of paper, and then essentially threw the paper at me. “Look that up on the internet!” she hissed at me. In addition to being frustrated with my internet research, she had assumed I had self-researched and self-diagnosed because I was a medical professional.

The irony was that I never self-diagnosed, or even trusted myself to diagnose issues with my kids. I always took the approach that when it came to my health or the health of those I loved, I wanted to be the client or the patient, not the diagnostician. Ask any medical professional and they will tell you that we tend to go from A to Z in a millisecond if the problem is close to home… from “everything is fine” to “death is imminent!” We need objective input.

The internet is a great resource for educating yourself about what might be going wrong, or signs and symptoms to be looking for. However, be sure and consider the source of the information. There are several horse health groups on Facebook. I am a member of two of them, and they appear to be dedicated to carefully screening the content that ultimately gets posted. Consider doing your research at sites like the American Association of Equine Practitioners, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or the Merck Veterinary Manual.

One article sums up the value, and danger, of the internet in this way:

Internet advice for basic training issues is fine. For example, someone might write “How do I ask my horse to pick up a left lead?” In sharp contrast, the person who writes, “My horse has been laying down in the pasture for the past six hours. What do I do now?” should not be on the computer, but on the telephone to his or her veterinarian.

By Roberta Dwyer, DVM, MS

Treating the problem yourself

Additionally, some treatments are best left to your vet. I actually had a man who lives on our mountain ask me if I would do a “training session” for the folks on the mountain to learn how to stitch up wounds in their animals! Seriously? The average person might be able to sew on a button, but your coat doesn’t need the TLC that your animal does! What about anesthesia (even if it is topical only), antibiotics, proper suture material, and a few dozen other details?

If you follow my blog, you know that we have been struggling with the consequences of Kadeen suffering a puncture wound in his left front leg. We were on the road, and I did many of the “right” things. I irrigated the wound and started antibiotics. Unfortunately, that was not enough. A standing debridement was not enough. It took general surgery and antibiotic beads placed next to the bone to resolve the infection.

Many of the articles that describe when to call the vet for your horse emphasize the danger involved with any wound that is near or on top of a lower leg bone or joint. There is less than an inch of tissue between the skin and very critical bone, tendon, and ligamentous structures. One article stated that puncture wounds or injuries near joints or bones are a definite case of “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!” One reader responded to my blog with the story of a young horse that had to be euthanized because of a “minor” wound in the lower leg. No penetrating leg wound is minor!

What are some other “vet required” scenarios?

It is important to know what “normal” is before you can assess “abnormal.” Do you know the normal TPR for a horse? Temperature between 99 and 101.5, pulse rate between 28-48, and respiratory rate between 10 to 20 breaths per minute. (Learn to take your horse’s pulse from this YouTube video.) Gums should be a healthy salmon pink with a “capillary refill rate” of less than 2 seconds. That means when you push on the gums to create a white area and then release the pressure, the refill time to pink is less than 2 seconds.

It is not possible to create an exhaustive list that covers all possible scenarios when veterinary intervention is required. Additionally, I am going to assume that you are capable of realizing when it is a real EMERGENCY versus when your vet needs to come but it doesn’t qualify as an emergency. This list will include both situations, especially since something can start as a non-emergency (but a vet is needed) and quickly progress to I need the vet here NOW.

Here are some suggestions that are in addition to eye issues and wounds around vital structures:

  • Fever Over 102 is abnormal. Over 103 is serious and the horse should be hosed or placed in an area with fans until the vet arrives.
  • Weak pulse or pulse rate > 80 beats per minute
  • Abnormal gum color (red, purple, white, or yellow)
  • Respiratory issues Respiratory distress is defined as erratic, labored, or unusually fast breathing at rest. Flared nostrils are abnormal. Yellow or green nasal discharge is a cause for concern. A chronic cough requires veterinary intervention.
  • Gastrointestinal issues/Colic This is where really knowing your horse comes into play. If they just don’t seem right, trust your instincts! Thrashing; pawing; rolling; stretching out; looking, biting, or kicking at their abdomen; getting up and down frequently; or off feed are common symptoms. Some mild colics might be amenable to treatment at home, but don’t wait too long to call the vet.
  • Uncontrollable bleeding, lacerations, foreign objects in the body If you find a foreign object stuck in your horse’s body, don’t remove it. Let your vet remove it. Blood from the nose or other body opening requires evaluation.
  • Choke This is a blockage of the esophagus. Food coming out of the nose, excessive salivation, signs similar to colic, and coughing or wretching are symptomatic of choke. There is a risk of aspiration of food into the lungs… Remove any feed source and call your vet!
  • Laminitis or exertional myopathy/azoturia (Tying up) A horse that won’t move is seriously ill.
  • Neurological signs A wobbly gait (ataxia), stumbling, paralysis, seizures, depression, circling or vestibular issues are all cause for immediate intervention.
  • Severe Lameness This could be as minor as a hoof abscess or as major as a fracture.
  • Urinary Issues Straining to urinate but not producing urine, bloody or brown urine
  • Reproductive Issues A foaling mare that shows no progression within 10-15 minutes of her water breaking. Normal deliveries take 30-40 minutes from water break to foal on the ground.
  • Miscellaneous Symptoms Snake or spider bite, heat stress, unresolved watery diarrhea, excessive sweating

In this excellent article about the Top Ten Times to call your vet, the author offers this wise perspective:

It is worth remembering that putting a call into the veterinarian isn’t a commitment to having someone come out, and a conversation with the veterinarian can often be very helpful in determining if one is needed. 

 Dr. Tracy Norman, VMD, ACVIM
My own perspective

My mother was a physical therapist. I think she worried that medical professionals would think she was an “over-reactor” so she tended to err on the side of underreacting. Either that or she simply subscribed to the theory that we just needed to suck it up and move on! Regardless of her thought processes, it was sometimes tough to get her to address a medical issue.

I had a neuroma tumor on my left ring finger. It was removed the first time when I was 12 years old. It was the most problematic when I would ride my horse. My finger would bump the saddle and the searing pain would cause me to drop the reins immediately. Not a good plan when you are cantering… It took me months and months to get my mom to believe me enough that she scheduled a doctor’s visit!

Perhaps that is one of many reasons I tended to swing the opposite way. I didn’t hesitate to seek medical advice for my kids. When your horse is having a problem, perhaps you should ask yourself, “What would I do if my child had this problem?” I recognize that health insurance for your child might influence your decision as opposed to an out-of-pocket veterinary visit for your horse. Nevertheless, sometimes that early phone call can ultimately save you money, or perhaps even save your horse’s life.

Reference articles: When to Call the Vet, When It’s Time to Call the Vet, When Should I Call the Vet?

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