Know your numbers, get accurate readings and understand what is normal for your horse.
Every horse owner should know what is ‘normal’ for his or her horse. Knowing how your horse acts and reacts when he is healthy will help you recognise when there is something wrong.
It is helpful to us, here at the practice, for you to explain symptoms when you call us. The more accurate information we have, the better we can evaluate the situation and our response. Horses that appear to be mildly depressed may be in a critical condition, so it is important that you track your horse’s vital signs and normal behaviour so you can alert us early if things aren’t right – early intervention improves clinical outcomes.
The vital signs for horses (donkeys are slightly different) are as follows:
Normal body temperature: 99.5-101.3°F or 37.5-38.5°C
The horse’s temperature is taken by inserting a thermometer (digital ones are best) into the anus and holding it slightly downwards so that it sits against the side of the rectum. Most horses don’t object to having their temperature taken, especially once they are used to it, but some can react badly so don’t stand directly behind the horse, stand to one side and get someone to hold the horse still. Make sure you clean the thermometer each time you use it.
Higher than normal body temperature can be a symptom of many conditions including infection, pain and dehydration. A lower than normal temperature is a sign of hypothermia, possibly caused by cold, wet living conditions or shock.
Heart rate: 28-48 beats/minute at rest and up to 200 beats/minute during exercise
Youngsters and ponies tend to have slightly higher rates. The heart rate is measured with a stethoscope or by feeling the pulse in the lower leg or jaw. In narrow chested horses the heart beat can be palpated directly over the heart behind the elbow on the left hand side. If, at rest, the heart or pulse rate is raised, this may be a sign that the horse is in pain, stressed or suffering from some degree of circulatory shock.
Respiration rate and pattern: 10-14 breaths/minute at rest.
The breathing rate can be measured with a stethoscope over the windpipe/chest or by watching the sideways expansion of the chest. An increased rate can indicate that a horse is stressed, in pain or has a respiratory/cardiac problem.
The pattern of breathing is important, too. Normal respiration in horses is subtle. If your horse is breathing deeply and flaring its nostrils in cool conditions and at rest, it is abnormal and may be a sign of respiratory/cardiac problems.
Gum colour and capillary refill time
The colour of your horse’s gums is a good indicator of health. They should be pale pink, shiny and moist with a refill time of 2 seconds – the refill time is the time it takes for colour to return to gum tissue adjacent to the teeth after pressing and releasing with your thumb. Increased refill time indicates circulatory disturbances caused by infection, blood loss or dehydration.
The colour of the gums is important: very pale gums can be a sign of anaemia and shock, while dark red indicates infection, dehydration or endotoxic shock. When the level of oxygen in the blood is low, the gums can take on a bluish colour, typically indicative of heart and respiratory problems.
As a caring horse owner, you should monitor your horse’s behaviour and health holistically. Subtle changes in behaviour – feeding, drinking and resting patterns and interaction with humans and stable mates – can indicate there is a problem. Physical signs need monitoring, too – colour of urine, faecal consistency, coat and general body condition.
If you would like more information on monitoring your horse’s health and vital signs, or if anything appears out of the ordinary, then call us at the practice on 0808 168 5580 for advice.