Equine 911: When Do I Really Need To Call The Vet?

When horses are sick or injured, it can be difficult to know what problems need a veterinarian’s care on an emergency basis, and which can wait until morning or later. Some situations, such as major bleeding, thrashing colic, or a horse that is down and can’t get up, clearly require veterinary intervention, but others are more subtle. In the less dramatic cases, there can be hesitation to call, both because of a reluctance to “bother” the veterinarian, and to avoid the expense of an emergency visit if one isn’t really needed. 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. Below are 10 conditions that warrant calling for help.

1.       Signs of abdominal pain/discomfort: A horse that is stretching out as if to urinate every few moments, doesn’t want to eat, sulks in the back of the stall, is away from the herd, looks, bites, or kicks at his sides, spends too much time lying down, curls up his upper lip, or gets up and down frequently with or without rolling has colic. “Colic” is a generic term that means abdominal pain. There are many causes for colic, which may be anything from harmless to life threatening. A veterinarian can help to sort out how serious the situation is, and even in mild colic, early intervention is key to help prevent dangerous and costly complications.

2.       Severe lameness: Limping noticeably at the walk or refusing to bear weight on one leg may be as simple as a foot abscess or as serious as a broken bone or infected joint. Prompt evaluation and treatment of all of these conditions helps to provide the best care as soon as possible.

3.       Eye problems: Squinting, tearing, or cloudiness of the eye allsignal an eye problem. Problems with the eye can progress rapidly, so prompt treatment is key in successful treatment. Delay can lead to scarring of the eye, loss of vision, or even loss of the eye.

4.       Bleeding: Not all bleeding is an emergency, but it is best to consult a veterinarian if there is blood coming from a cut or out of the nose or other body orifice, as it may signal a serious condition.

5.       A wound near or over a joint: Any wound that is near or overlying a joint should be evaluated by a veterinarian as soon as reasonably possible. Especially on the legs, there is not much tissue between the skin surface and the joint capsules, so even relatively superficial appearing wounds can penetrate into a joint. The joint is the cartilage covered union between two bones that is filled with synovial fluid, which acts as a joint lubricant. Once bacteria gain entrance to a joint (or tendon sheath, which is a synovial fluid space surrounding tendons), the resulting infection causes damage quickly, leading to a very painful and difficult to treat condition. Once a horse has an infection in a joint or tendon sheath, which is characterized by severe lameness, the chances of curing the infection and returning the horse to soundness are dramatically reduced. This is definitely a case of, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

6.       Choke: Horse “choke” isn’t really choking at all, it is blockage of the esophagus. Signs include retching, feed material coming out of the nose, excess salivation, coughing, and signs of colic. A horse with choke should be seen by a veterinarian to relive the blockage, and should not be allowed to attempt to eat anything while choked. In some cases, choke can lead to the horse aspirating feed material, leading to severe pneumonia.

7.       A mare having trouble foaling: If a mare is in labor and hasn’t made rapid progress (unlike cows, mares deliver in about 20 minutes), or if there is a red membrane covering the exiting foal, call the vet IMMEDIATELY. In the case of the red membrane (red bag delivery, caused by premature separation of the placenta associated with fescue consumption by the mare), cut or tear open the red bag first, allowing the foal to breathe.

8.       Reluctance to move: A horse that is planted in place and does not want to walk may have laminitis or myopathy (“tied up”), both of which can be very serious. Prompt attention of these conditions gives the best chance for a good outcome.

9.       Red or brown urine: Although normal horse urine turns red when it mixes with snow, horse urine should be yellow when it comes out of the horse. Bloody or brown urine can signal a serious condition.

10.   Sudden incoordination or other neurologic signs: Neurologic problems in horses can progress rapidly and are best addressed early in the course of the problem. Horses that are dizzy or suddenly incoordinated can be dangerous to themselves or their handlers. Early determination of the problem and aggressive treatment are usually key to resolving the problem.