Horse Health: When Is It an Emergency?

By Annie King, DVM, Equine Ambulatory Department, Pilchuck Veterinary Hospital

We’ve all been there: You come home from a long day at work to find one of your horses has become ill or been injured. And now it is after-hours at the veterinary clinic. So how do you know when it is a “true emergency” or when it can wait until the next day? 

The following is a list of true emergencies that should always be seen as soon as possible, as well as a few recommendations as to what you can do while waiting for your veterinarian to arrive.

1.    Deep wounds near a joint or tendon 

  • Move horse to a clean location if he/she is stable.
  • Apply a sterile bandage over the wound to decrease exposure to contaminants. Be careful not to introduce dirt or hair into the wound.

2.    Puncture wounds to the hoof or coronary band

  • Do not remove the object if at all possible, so your veterinarian can assess the depth and direction of penetration.  

3.    Lacerations or wounds that are bleeding in a steady stream without slowing

  • Apply steady, firm pressure over the wound using sterile gauze or clean towels.  
  • Do not remove dressing if it becomes saturated; simply add more layers. 

4.    Sudden onset of severe lameness or reluctance to move

  • Do not ask horse to move any more than necessary.

5.    Signs of eye pain or injuries involving the eyelid or cornea

  • Signs of eye pain include squinting, increased tear production, eyelid swelling, and white or blue haze to cornea
  • Do not flush or use any eye ointments until your veterinarian examines the eye – some ointments should not be used with certain eye conditions.

6.    Colic or acute diarrhea (Any colic can be serious and potentially life-threatening.)

  • Remove food and hay. Water is OK.
  • Allow horse to rest quietly unless trying to roll. If attempting to roll, hand-walk at a steady pace.

7.    Fever (rectal temperature over 101.5° F)

  • Often the first sign of a fever is reluctance to eat – take the temperature of any inappetant horse BEFORE giving any medications.
  • Remove food and hay. Water is OK.

8.    Choke (esophageal obstruction)

  • Remove food, hay AND water.
  • DO NOT attempt to flush the esophagus yourself – this can cause aspiration pneumonia.

9.    Steady bleeding from the nose

  • Keep horse as quiet and calm as possible.
  • Raise hay and water to keep head elevated.

10.    Difficult delivery of a foal 

  • Call veterinarian if foal is not delivered within 30 minutes of onset of contractions.  
  • Do not attempt to pull the foal yourself. 

11.    Other true emergencies: respiratory distress, allergic reaction and neurologic signs (incoordination, sudden change in behavior, etc.)  

  • Keep horse calm and quiet in a cool, safe location.  

When in doubt – call your veterinarian! They can always help you sort out a true emergency from a less urgent one over the phone, and give further recommendations for treatments while you wait for their arrival.

Pilchuck Veterinary Hospital offers comprehensive wellness and preventive equine care, including 24/7 emergency. Call 360.568.3111 for more information.

Article added 4.18.14