There are few more frightening things for an owner than seeing their beloved horse collapse for no apparent reason. It’s also a challenge for the vet to try and determine the cause of such an event.
If you find your horse collapsed, either conscious or unconscious, call your vet immediately.
When the vet arrives
First of all, your vet will stress the safety of both horse and humans before beginning to examine the animal. Sometimes the cause of the collapse is obvious; an injury or excessive bleeding might present but in other cases there will be no apparent cause.
The vet will perform first aid to stabilise the horse’s condition. Once the immediate emergency is over, he will need to gather as much information as he can in order to make a preliminary diagnosis and commence appropriate treatment. Here’s where you can help.
Your vet will want to know whether the horse has suffered an episode of collapse before; when it occurred and how long it lasted. Think about what kind of environment the horse was in when the episodes occurred. Have there been any changes in his management recently or around the time of the previous episodes? Was the horse on any sort of medication when he collapsed? Was the horse conscious when he collapsed? Have any other horses at the yard experienced similar episodes? Is the horse’s behaviour ‘normal’ in between episodes?
In cases where the incident has no apparent cause, the more information you can provide the better. It’s a good idea to keep a daily diary detailing your horse’s health and behaviour, especially if the horse is new to you and you are still getting to know him. This doesn’t have to be “War and Peace”, just a few lines if there’s anything to note that is slightly out of the ordinary.
Diagnosing the cause of collapse is notoriously difficult. Most commonly, the problem is due to some issue with the cardiovascular and nervous systems and your vet will carry out tests and examinations accordingly. These may include a neurologic exam; echocardiographs and electrocardiograms. If it’s safe to do so, he may wish to carry out exercise testing too. Additional information may be obtained through blood and serum analysis, radiography, computed tomography or MRI scans.
Sometimes no definitive diagnosis is reached. The horse may suffer one unexplained episode of collapse, then no more.
It is possible for horses to faint (syncope). A drop in arterial blood pressure causes insufficient blood supply to the brain and the horse collapses. This condition is usually associated with some sort of underlying cardiovascular problem and accounts for about half of all episodes of equine collapse.
Seizures can cause collapse. These are most often seen in foals but also affect adult horses and are usually the result of some underlying disease like sepsis, for example.
Horses can suffer from sleep disorders and these can also cause collapse. Narcolepsy in horses can cause a sudden loss of muscle tone and the horse consequently collapses. This can occur in foals as well as adult horses and is usually associated with chronic sleep deprivation.
Trauma, bacterial infection, parasite infestation or liver disease can all affect the central nervous system and cause collapse. Motor function and consequent collapse can be compromised by trauma, botulism and poisoning. Other causes include; shock, electrolyte abnormalities, hypoglycemia and anaphylaxis.
Fortunately, equine collapse is not an everyday occurrence but if it does happen to your horse, always call the vet immediately; keep the horse under observation until the vet arrives and remove any objects from the stable or immediate area which could be harmful should the horse come around and begin to panic.
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