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Common Emergencies Part 1

  1. COLIC. Yes, I think that this one has to be at the top of the list.  It is one of the few words that strikes fear in the hearts of all horsemen, and rightfully so, as it is the leading cause of death in horses. What is colic you ask? It is a broad term that describes abdominal discomfort.   
  1. What are the causes? We know that there are many causes of colic; some of the most common ones include a change in feed or hay, decreased water consumption, temperature (too cold OR too hot), change in barometric pressure, and change in environment.  You see the word change listed repeatedly, as it seems that even the most subtle of changes can be the causative agent.  Often we may be able to pinpoint the cause but many times we don’t ever know why a horse colics on a given day. What’s going on inside that is causing colic? Common causes of pain can be a transient spasm, impaction, gas distension, or displacement.  More severe causes can include entrapments and torsions. What are the most common signs? The most common early signs include not eating, pawing, turning to look at belly, lip curling, and lying down.  Worsening signs include rolling, thrashing and dangerous behavior. What do you do if your horse is colicking? Remove all feed and hay.  Call your vet. This is a condition that needs to be addressed by your veterinarian, not your next door neighbor. Most vets, I believe, would much rather treat that initial colic than the one that has progressed to a more critical level!  Take your horse for a walk while waiting for your vet. Number one rule: Stay safe!  A horse in severe discomfort can be a danger.  When in doubt, wait for the vet. Number two rule: Always take your horse’s temperature before you give any medication.  It is important to know if your horse has a fever and many medications will mask that important fact.
  2. SUDDEN, SEVERE UNILATERAL LAMENESS. Acute, severe lameness of one limb is considered an emergency until proven otherwise. What can be the causes you ask? There are several causes of sudden onset lameness such as sole bruises, hoof abscesses, and puncture wounds that can usually be resolved fairly quickly with proper care. However, when your vet hears the word “sudden,” he or she worries about the other more severe causes of sudden lameness such as foreign body (ie. nail) in the hoof, fracture in the limb, or joint infection. What should you do? First of all, examine your horse’s affected leg and foot for any wounds, nails, heat, or swelling. If your horse needs to get to the barn, walk slowly if he/she is willing. Call your vet, describe the clinical signs, and make a plan.  Acute lameness is usually considered an emergency that should be seen quickly so….call the vet!
  3. LACERATIONS. I’m not sure if these are seen more in winter months because horses may be more fresh when it’s cold or if it’s simply that I remember the cold weather injuries the most; a terrible barbed wire wound that took hours to suture by truck headlights in an ice storm certainly remains imbedded in my memory, but there is a long list of those old stories in almost every seasoned vet’s portfolio. Thankfully I now have a clinic with good light and heat where I can attain more accurate closure of the wound and the horse (and I) can be more comfortable!  These types of injuries are definitely worthy of discussion as emergencies! What can be the cause you ask?  I think that’s pretty much straight forward-some sort of trauma has created the emergency.   What should you do? If you find a wound or laceration you should ask these questions:  is the horse in distress, is there active bleeding, is it located in a critical location (joint, tendon sheath, eye).  Apply a pressure bandage if there is bleeding. Then….Call your vet.  I often tell my clients to text me pictures of wounds so I can help assess the situation.  I give a window of eight to twelve hours for suturing wounds-the sooner it’s done, the more successful the outcome.
  4. EYE INJURIES. Because of their large size and prominent location, it is not unusual to receive lots of calls regarding eye injuries. I have encouraged my clients over the years to consider any eye issue an emergency. There have been many occasions when what appeared to be a mild ocular issue to a horse owner has progressed to a serious problem rapidly. What are the most common signs you ask? Eyelid swelling, tearing or drainage, holding the eye closed, change in color of globe, redness, and lacerations are common problems seen. What are common causes? Corneal abrasions or ulcers, blunt trauma, and anterior uveitis (moon blindness) are common causes of ocular disorders.   What should you do? (drumroll…..) Call the vet!  Eye disorders can be extremely painful, and left untreated they can lead to loss of vision, so prompt diagnosis and treatment are crucial.
  5. LAMINITIS. Also called “founder,” this is another condition that strikes fear in the minds of most horse owners. Laminitis occurs when the laminae, which act like Velcro to hold the hoof capsule onto the coffin bone, become inflamed. If severe, the finger-like attachments lose their grip and the coffin bone and hoof wall begin to separate. What are the signs? You will most likely see a change in weight bearing and posture as well as a reluctance to walk. Laminitis can affect all feet or just one, but most often it occurs in both front feet. There is a characteristic stance where horses try to bear as little weight as possible on the front end – they rock back onto their hind feet. Some horses will spend long periods of time lying down if it is too painful for them to stand. What causes it? Laminitis has many causes, but some of the most common are lush spring pasture, grain overload, and Equine Metabolic Syndrome or Cushing’s Disease. What should you do? If you think your horse has laminitis, you should call your vet and take away grain and fresh grass until your horse is seen.