As a veterinarian technician, I have been exposed to a variety of animals and their owners. While working at a mixed full service animal hospital, I have learned to deal with every owner with a new perspective but have seen common tendencies amongst owners of different species. For instance, most small animal owners rely heavily on their veterinarian's opinion. Large animal owners tend to be more independent. I am sure the reasons behind this statement vary, and I realize this is not necessarily the case for everyone, but a generalized tendency I have encountered.
With this being said, it is imperative that every horse owner understands the basics and importance of vital signs. You feed your horse. You exercise your horse. You travel with your horse. You compete with your horse. And you celebrate with your horse. So why not understand basic care of your horse? With all of the time you spend with your beloved friend, you should have plenty of time to practice taking vital signs. You'll also get a feel for what's normal for your horse and his tendencies. This can be a life saver in a critical situation when it comes to deciding to make that 911 call to your vet, as well as assisting your vet decipher between an emergency and non-emergency situation.
The very basics of vital signs include temperature, pulse, and respiratory rate. This is also known as TPR. However, I feel there are a few other indicators of a horse's health that every owner should understand. This includes evaluation of mucus membranes and capillary refill time, as well as gut sounds. In your barn and trailer first AID kit, you should have a thermometer, stethoscope, and a watch/clock that allows you to count seconds. You can access all of these items at any general health store for a reasonable price.
- Taking the temperature of a horse is very simple, especially if you use a digital thermometer. I recommend a digital thermometer, which are safer than the mercury thermometers if broken. This is done rectally with the assistance of some lubricant. Simply place the thermometer in the horse rectally. Wait for the thermometer to reach the final temperature (they will normally beep when finished).
- Normal temperature for adult horses range from 99.5-101.5 degrees Fahrenheit. Neonatal foals have a normal temperature of 100-102 degrees Fahrenheit.
- You can assess your horse's pulse rate a couple of ways. One option is to use a stethoscope by placing it on the left side of the horse just behind the elbow. If you do not have a stethoscope, you can feel the lingual artery on the bottom side of the jaw. Each "lub dub" is one beat. Count the number of beats in 15 seconds. Then multiply by four. This will give you the number of beats per minute.
- The normal pulse rate for adult horses is between 32 and 36 beats. Newborn foals can have a pulse rate between 80-100 beats. Older foals can have a rate between 60-80 beats per minute.
- Taking the respiratory rate is as easy as opening your eyes. One of the easiest ways is to simply watch the horse's chest rise and fall as the horse breathes. This would be an inhale and exhale, which would amount to one breath. You can also feel the air as it escapes the horse's nostrils, or listen with your stethoscope by placing it on the horse's trachea. Count the amount of breaths in 15 seconds and multiply by four.
- An advantage to listening to the horse breath with the stethoscope is that you can assess how well the horse is breathing. Do you hear any wheezing? Are the breaths shallow or deep?
- Normal respiratory rates for adult horses is eight to 12 breaths per minute. Newborn foals can have as many as 60-80 breaths per minute. Older foals can have a respiratory rate of 20-40 breaths per minute.
Evaluating Mucus Membranes/Capillary Refill Time
- Mucus membranes or the gums of a horse are a good indication of your horse's health. They should be bubblegum pink and moist. You can check the capillary refill time by pressing your finger firmly on the horse's gums, then release your finger. Count the number of seconds that it takes the gums to turn from white to their original color. Capillary refill time should be around 2 seconds or less.
- Mucus membranes that are bright or dark red, blue, white, have a long capillary refill time, and are not moist can indicate a serious condition and your veterinarian should be contacted immediately.
- Gut sounds can vary depending on the horse, time of day, and situation at hand. However, becoming familiar with your horse's gut sounds can assist you when assessing your horse's health in a moment of injury, distress, or illness. Your horse's gut should be mobile and moving food along well. Gut sounds can indicate whether or not motility exists in your horse's digestive tract.
- Listening to the gut sounds includes listening to both right and left sides, high and low. Understanding basic anatomy will assist you with this. Make sure that you are far back enough on the horse so that you are not listening at the thorax, but at the abdominal region of the horse. You can listen by putting your ear up to the gut, but it is recommended to use a stethoscope.
- You will hear gurgling, grumbles, growls, and even roars, just as you can hear from your own stomach. These generally mean that your horse's digestive tract is moving digested food through.
- Because there is no particular standard for gut sound normal ranges, you should listen to each side for at least one minute. The more you listen to your horse's gut sounds, the more familiar you'll become and the easier it will be to distinguish normal from abnormal.
- No gut sounds normally indicate a problem, and your vet should be called immediately. If your horse has an abnormally high amount of gut sounds, you should also contact your veterinarian.
By understanding these basic vital signs, you can assess your horse's general health. This should be done periodically. This will not only familiarize you with your horse's normal tendencies, but it will also provide you with the practice you need in order to take vital signs quickly in a moment of emergency. Remember, being a proactive owner or caretaker could potentially save the life of your horsey friend!
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