Eye injuries are a veterinary emergency

Your Horse’s Vital Signs Part 2: Emergencies

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How to help your horse in an emergency.

Horse emergencies can be frightening but here’s how you should respond to ensure the best outcome for your horse.

This article is the second of a 2-part series. In the first part, Dr Rachel O’Higgins explained the vital signs and why it’s essential every horse owner knows their horse’s normal, healthy resting temperature, heart rate and respiration (breathing) rate, so let’s have a look at how to respond quickly in an emergency. 

Emergencies

When you encounter a condition that requires veterinary care, the most important thing is to remain calm.

Assess your horse’s condition to the best of your ability. If possible, take your horse’s vital signs, and be prepared to answer your veterinarian’s questions about your horse and their behaviour.

It is a good idea to keep an emergency first aid kit handy. This can help you treat your horse while you wait for your veterinarian to arrive.

Basic first aid kit 

  • Combine or gamgee roll
  • Gauze swabs
  • Crepe bandage
  • Vet wrap bandage
  • Sticky elastoplast/askinaplast bandage
  • Non-stick dressing
  • Hoof poultice
  • Bandage scissors
  • Digital rectal thermometer
  • Surgical scrub, such as iodine or chlorhex
  • Latex gloves
  • Torch
  • Phone number for your veterinarian
  • An up-to-date record of of your horse’s vaccinations/medications

Emergency situations

Wounds:

Call your vet if:

  • There appears to be excessive bleeding
  • The entire skin thickness is penetrated
  • A wound or puncture is near or over a joint or tendon sheath
  • Any structures underlying the skin are visible
  • The wound is severely contaminated
  • You suspect a broken bone

Consult your veterinarian before you attempt to clean the wound, or you remove debris or penetrating objects because you could do further damage or cause uncontrollable bleeding.

Penetrating foreign objects should be left in place, unless otherwise advised, and stabilised to avoid further movement. If advised, you can hose the wound to remove contamination while you wait for your veterinarian to arrive.

If there is excessive bleeding, you may be advised to hold a compress over the wound or apply a firm bandage to reduce blood loss. When cleaning wounds or changing bandages, avoid wound contamination by washing your hands and wearing gloves.

Do not give any medications to your horse or apply any topical treatments to the wound before your veterinarian arrives, unless he or she has advised you to do so.

Horses treated for lacerations or puncture wounds will usually require a tetanus booster.

Eyes

If the eye has been injured, consult your veterinarian immediately and do not attempt to treat yourself. Other signs of eye pain, such as squinting, excessive discharge and holding the eye closed require prompt attention. Try to keep your horse calm and quiet, and prevent them from rubbing the eye while you wait for your veterinarian.

Colic

Colic isn’t a disease in itself, but rather a symptom of abdominal pain, which can have many different causes.

Signs to look out for include:

  • Stretching
  • Lying down
  • Decreased manure output
  • Rolling
  • Pawing
  • Decreased appetite
  • Kicking at the abdomen
  • Looking at the flank

The heart rate and respiratory rate may be elevated, and gum colour may be abnormal. Report any of the above clinical signs to your veterinarian, along with your horse’s vital signs.

As you wait for your veterinarian to arrive, remove all access to feed, but provide clean water. If there is a danger the horse may injure themselves from rolling, you can try walking your horse until your veterinarian arrives.

If there is a chance your horse’s behaviour is going to put you in danger, then stay at a safe distance. You won’t be any assistance to your horse or your veterinarian if you become injured.

Don’t administer any medications unless advised, as these may mask symptoms causing a delay in potentially necessary and life-saving treatments.

To view our video on signs of colic, visit: http://bit.ly/2u8f0n7

Neurological emergency

Neurological emergencies are varied. They can occur from head and neck injuries after a kick or fall, or from infection from a disease, such as tetanus or hendra virus.

Symptoms can vary, but may include:

  • Ataxia (unsteady gait)
  • Depression
  • Circling
  • Head pressing
  • Weakness or an inability to stand
  • Excessive excitability

These emergencies require immediate veterinary assistance. Call your veterinarian for further instructions. However, without a clear history of trauma, it is not advisable to handle your horse while you await your veterinarian, due to the risk of hendra virus in certain parts of Australia.

Acute non-weight bearing lameness

The most common cause of acute non-weight bearing lameness is a hoof abscess. Other possible causes include fractures, or infection within a joint or tendon sheath.

You may find there is a strong digital pulse, and there can be heat in the hoof, and painful swelling at the coronary band or heels. You could apply a wet poultice, or get your horse to put the affected foot in a tub of warm water and Epsom salts while you wait for your veterinarian.

Your veterinarian or farrier will usually locate and carefully open the abscess on the solar surface of the hoof. Antibiotics are not usually required, but tetanus prophylaxis, and further poulticing or bandaging to keep the area clean is important for recovery.

If your horse steps on a nail or other sharp, penetrating object, and it remains in the hoof, consult your veterinarian. You will likely be advised to leave the object in place, unless there is a risk of the object penetrating deeper.

If you have been asked to remove the object, ensure you clean out the foot first then use tape or a marker pen to mark the point of entry on the foot. You should also mark the object at the depth to which it had penetrated. This will help your veterinarian assess the extent of the damage caused to the internal structures of the foot. Apply a wrap to the hoof to prevent further contamination while you wait for your veterinarian to arrive.

If there is a chance you think your horse may have a fracture, the best thing to do is to keep them quiet, still and confined to a fenced area until your veterinarian arrives to provide a diagnosis. If you have to move them, bring the float to the horse and travel him in a space that is as tight as possible, so he can lean up against the walls.

A badly applied splint can do more harm than good, so it may be a better idea to wait for your veterinarian who can apply one under sedation prior to moving the horse. This can be a high stress situation, but it is important to await diagnostics and try to not panic. It is absolutely true that some injuries cannot be managed successfully with current techniques, but many injuries can now be treated with consistent success.

Choke

Choke occurs when feed material becomes stuck in the oesophagus and obstructs it. A horse with choke will have saliva and feed material discharging from their nose and mouth, and they may be pawing and retching, or coughing. It can be distressing to watch, but the best thing to do is to remove all feed and water from your horse’s reach, and call your veterinarian.

Some horses will be able to pass the obstruction on their own within a few minutes. However, if this doesn’t happen, your veterinarian will be required to pass a nasogastric tube under heavy sedation to aid the passage of feed material into the stomach.

I recommend keeping track of your horse’s temperature and respiratory rate following an episode of choke. If readings are elevated, call your veterinarian for further advice as aspiration pneumonia can occur as a complication following an episode of choke.

Summary

  • STAY CALM. You can better help your horse when you’re calm and collected.
  • STAY SAFE. You won’t be able to help your horse if you get hurt.
  • KEEP YOUR HORSE VACCINATED. Current vaccinations help protect your horse from a range of conditions, including tetanus, which can be fatal.
  • KEEP YOUR VETERINARIAN’S CONTACT INFORMATION HANDY. Easy access to your veterinarian’s contact information is vital in any emergency situation. An up-to-date record of all your horse’s medications and vaccinations is also helpful.
  • CONSULT YOUR VETERINARIAN. If you are unsure whether it is an emergency or not, call your veterinarian anyway. We are always here to provide advice. Often, seemingly minor injuries or illness can become life-threatening if not treated early and correctly.
  • BE PREPARED. Emergencies occur irrespective of days, hours and location, so always be prepared.

Horse emergencies can be frightening but here’s how you should respond in an emergency to ensure the best outcome for your horse.

Learn how to take your horse’s vital signs.

Dr Rachel O'Higgins
Dr Rachel O’Higgins, BVMS MRCVS

Dr Rachel O'Higgins graduated from the University of Glasgow. She worked in mixed practice in the UK before travelling to Egypt to work for ACE, providing free veterinary care to working horses and donkeys. She moved to Australia in 2010 to complete an internship in equine medicine and surgery in Victoria, she then spent six months in equine practice in South Australia before moving to New South Wales. Rachel has worked in the Hunter Valley for the last 5 years providing all aspects of veterinary care for Thoroughbred stud farms, performance horses and pleasure horses.

Rachel O’Higgins is a member of Equine Dental Vets.

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