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For love of your pet: How to evaluate your horses overall health

By By Shana Bohac
July 10, 2014 at 2:10 a.m.


You know your horse better than anyone else, so you are the best judge if and when something is not right. There are some key parameters that you can monitor to evaluate your horse's health and help you detect potential health problems early. Knowing how to take your horse's vitals can help your veterinarian gauge the severity of your horse's condition.

Your horse's vitals include rectal temperature, respiratory rate, intestinal gut sounds, heart rate, mucous membrane color, capillary refill time and digital pulses.

Rectal temperature can be important when evaluating your horse for signs of infection or inflammation. A normal horse's temperature will range from 99 to 101 degrees. Exercise can cause a horse's temperature to be elevated temporarily.

Respiratory rate can be evaluated by watching the rise and fall of the abdominal wall right behind the rib cage. The normal respiratory rate for a horse is 10 to 24 breaths per minute. Rapid respiration rate can indicate a respiratory problem, pain or other health concerns.

Intestinal gut sounds are important to evaluate in episodes of colic. You will want to listen to all four quadrants, which are located in the upper left flank, lower left flank, upper right flank and lower right flank regions.

It is easiest to use a stethoscope; however, you can also put your ear close to the area to get an idea of gut sounds. Normal sounds should be growls, gurgles and pings. Decreases in gut sounds along with acting painful can indicate an episode of colic.

Heart rate can be evaluated behind the point of the elbow on the left side of the horse with a stethoscope. A pulse can easily be palpated under the jaw at the lingual artery. You can count the number of beats you hear or pulses you feel in 15 seconds and multiply it by four to get number of beats per minute.

Normal resting heart rate or pulse in a horse can range from 28 to 44 beats per minute. Elevations in the heart rate or pulse can indicate abnormalities in circulatory function, anemia, pain or shock.

Mucous membrane color should be evaluated in good light and by lifting up the upper lip and evaluating the tissue above the teeth. The normal color of mucous membranes should be light pink.

Changes in this color can include being white, purple or bright red. Mucous membrane moisture can be evaluated by touching the tissue. There should be some mucous present.

Capillary refill time can be evaluated by pressing the mucous membranes above the upper arcade of teeth. The gums should turn white after you press on the gums and then turn pink within one to two seconds. If the gums remain white for longer than two seconds, this can indicate dehydration, blood loss or shock.

Digital pulses can be palpated on the back of the fetlocks on all four legs. You should be able to feel the pulses slightly, but they should not be bounding or throbbing. Increases in digital pulses indicate inflammation or injury of the feet.

Dr. Shana Bohac has a veterinary practice at Hillcrest Animal Hospital in Victoria. She works on small animals and equine patients. Submit questions to drshanabohac@hotmail.com.

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