Horse Vital Signs
Horses are big, powerful and amazingly fragile animals.
Caring for a sick horse is very much like caring for a very small child:
1. The horse cannot tell you what is wrong with words.
2. The horse can change from being “a little off” to deathly ill very quickly.
3. The horse has very little tolerance for pain or anxiety.
4. The horse in pain or in anxiety can be very dangerous as he/she thrashes around!
Because a horse cannot use words, you must gauge “What’s wrong” by using vital signs. There are 9 vital signs:
1. Simply Observe
* Trust your instincts! If something about the horse does not “looks right” to you – pay attention!
* Do NOT ignore your intuition.
* Learn what your horse’s eyes and gums normally look like. They should appear moist and shiny, not dry.
* Other physical signs are things like mucus, bleeding, swelling.
* A note about bleeding – try to estimate blood loss in ounces. Remember a small amout of blood can make a BIG mess, and appears to be much more than is actually present.
2. Observe expression & Behavior
* Notice if the horse is exhibiting a decrease in appetite. Be especially concerned if your horse has stopped eating or drinking.
* Notice signs of pain or discomfort such as pawing, looking or biting at a flank, getting up and down frequently, favoring a leg and rolling. Be sure to distinguish between your horse’s normal and abnormal rolling habits.
* If a horse that’s usually bright, alert and responsive is acting dull, slow and depressed – be concerned, investigate further.
* Is horse eating and drinking?
* Last manure? Anything unusual about this manure? Dry? Liquid? Color change?
Hint: So you don’t sound like an idiot when you call the vet, from this point on, write down the time and your findings!
* The horse’s pulse rate is the most important of the vital signs, as it is the best indicator of his/her pain – will also increase if he is excited or nervous, during/after exercise, or has a disease. The higher the heart rate, the more severe the condition.
* How To Check a Horse’s Pulse:
1. Use a stethoscope for taking their horse’s pulse. In this case, place the stethoscope on the left side, just behind the elbow, at your horse’s girth.
2. Once you get a strong pulse, begin counting beats for 15 seconds, and then multiply by four to calculate your beats per minute.
3. Most horses won’t stand still long enough for you to count the pulse for a full minute. To simplify things, you can count for fifteen seconds and then multiply the result by four.If your horse is standing comfortably, you can take a 30-second reading and multiply by two.
4. It may also happen that the horse will not stand quietly for 15 full seconds. In a pinch, take the pulse for six seconds and multiply by 10. Because a horse’s heartbeat is normally irregularly-irregular, this is the least accurate measurement, but still a useful indicator. Report this as a “six second pulse.”
5. Count each lub-dub as 1 beat.
6. It takes familiarization with the sound of your horse’s heartbeat in order to read it accurately. Horses have at least a three step heart sound vs. the familiar two step sound associated with humans. The middle sound is usually the strongest and there may even be a short pause before the third sound, or an additional fourth sound. For this reason, many find it more practical to take their horse’s pulse by feel, as the individual beats feel more obvious.
7. Don’t be concerned about “missed beats,” “Coupled beats” or “runs of beats” – this is not unusual. It is the total that is most important.
8. The horse’s pulse can be found near the front of the left jawbone. Under the jawbone, there is a major artery that sticks out slightly. Using your forefinger (never your thumb – because you may feel your own pulse), press against the artery firmly.
* Practice taking your own pulse with both your fingertips and with the stethescope. Practice makes easy!
* The age of the horse will create a wide variable in your reading.
o Newborn Foal: His pulse rate will be up to 120 beats per minute.
o Two week old Foal: His pulse rate will be up to 100 beats per minute.
o Four week old Foal: His pulse rate will be up to 70 beats per minute.
o Yearling: His pulse rate will be 45-60 beats per minute.
o Two year old: His pulse rate will be 40-60 beats per minute.
o Adult: His pulse rate will be 30-40 beats per minute.
* Youtube Video
4. Bowel Sounds
* The gut sounds that come from your horse’s stomach and intestines can be very important information for your vet to diagnose an illness. Gut sounds should always be present. The absence of gut sounds is more indicative of a problem than excessive gut sounds. Usually, an absence of gut sounds indicates colic.
* How To Check for Gut Sounds:
1. First practice on yourself. Divide your abdomen into four squares: upper right, lower right, upper left and lower left. Place the stethescope in the midle of the first quadrent and listen. You may need to listen for as long as five minutes, so be opatient. If you are digesting (i.e. you are not dead) you will hear fluid moving, or gurgling or rumbling or any of a variety of entertaining sounds – any sound is better than no sound! Now move to each of the other quadrents and repeat.
2. Press the stethescope up againts your horse’s barrel just behind his last rib, on the left side, not far from where you took his pulse. Listen. It may take a few minutes – be patient.
3. Repeat in the lower left side. Move with the horse – do no get kicked!
4. Repeat in he upper right and lower right sides. A colic may hurt the most on her/his right side – do NOT get kicked!
5. Respiratory Rate
* How To The Respiration Rate:
1. Watch or feel your horse’s ribcage/belly for one minute. Be sure to count 1 inhale and 1 exhale as one breath (not as two).
2. Each breath is fairly slow. If you are having difficulty seeing the ribcage move, try watching the horse’s nostrils or place your hand in front of the nostrils to feel the horse exhale.
3. An even better method is to place a stethoscope to the horse’s windpipe to listen to his breathing. This will also give you strange sounds if the horse’s windpipe is blocked by mucous or if the he has allergies or heaves.
4. If at all possible, count for a full minute, or at least 30 seconds.
* The average respiration rate of an adult horse at rest is 8-15 breaths per minute.
* A horse’s respiration rate increases with hot or humid weather, exercise, fever or pain.
6. Mucus membranes
* The mucous membranes are the lining of a horse’s eyelids, his gums and the inside of his nostrils.
* The color of the mucous membranes are another indicator of blood circulation.
* A healthy horse’s gums are slightly more pale than a humans.
* Color of Mucous Membranes:
o Moist Pink: Healthy normal circulation.
o Very Pale Pink: Capillaries contracted, indicates fever, blood loss or anemia.
o Bright Red: Capillaries enlarged, indicates toxicity or mild shock.
o Gray or Blue: Severe shock, depression and illness.
o Bright Yellow: Associated with liver problems.
7. Capillary Refill
* How To Check CRT:
1. Lift your horse’s upper lip up and firmly press your thumb against his gums for 2 seconds, “blanching” the gum to create a white mark.
2. This white mark should return to the normal pink color within 1-2 seconds after releasing the pressure.
* Capillary Refill Time (CRT) is the time it takes for blood to return to blanched tissues in the gums. This is an indicator of blood circulation. Normal refill time is 1 to 2 seconds.
* If the CRT takes longer than 2 seconds, the horse may be going into shock.
8. Skin Turgor
* A well hydrated horse has skin that is “stretched” over her/his muscles that are full of water.
* The dehydrated horse has skin that is is laying on muscle that is shrunk smaller because of lack of water. The skin will be “loose.”
* How to measure turgor:
1. Pinch and pull up a fold of skin on the horse’s neck in front of the shoulder, using your thumb and forefinger.
2. Observe whether the skin snaps back to its normal position quickly or responds slowly and remains “tented up.”
3. A slow response can indicate dehydration.
* Return time should be 1 second or less.
* An older horse may have less elastic skin that returns slowly to its normal position even if the horse is well hydrated.
* Horses temperatures are taken rectally, using a digital thermometer.
* Although many people use a lubricant, this really isn’t necessary.
* How to:
1. With the horse tied or restrained by someone at his head, touch the horse’s shoulder so that he knows you are there.
2. Then walk back along the chest wall and hindquarters keeping a hand on the horse at all times. Use one hand to move the tail out of the way (expect the horse to try to move it back and/or to clamp it down).
3. With the other hand gently insert the thermometer. Do this gently! It is possible to “stab” a hole in the rectal wall if the horse moves suddenly, and you do not “dance with the horse.”
4. One caution–make sure that you do not lose the thermometer inside the horse. The rectum will naturally attempt to draw the thermometer inside. You can prevent this by making sure to keep hold of the thermometer firmly at all times.
5. There’s no way to secure them in place while they “cook,” so you will have to hold onto it. Do NOT let go!
6. Leave a digital in place until it beeps.
* Do not stand directly behind the horse, and stay pressed up close to the hindquarter, being alert for attempts to kick to the side.
* Always clean the thermometer well before returning it to its case…and especially if used on an ill horse, to prevent the spreading of an illness.
* Horses tend to have higher temperatures in warm weather and during/after exercise, stress or excitement.
* Normal temperature is 99-101.2 degrees (this can vary with exercise, ambient temperature, and/or disease).
If two people are present, one should stay at the horse’s head and calm/control the horse. If three people are present, then the third should act as “scribe” – writing down the vital signs as reported by the person taking he signs.
If at all possible, the person who took the vitals should call the vet to report the signs.
Repeat as often as the vet instructs. Take the pulse at least every 15 minutes.
To learn how to do vital signs, you must practice, practice, practice! Start on yourself! (Except for the temperature! Yuck!)