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Vital Signs

This area is a reference for the normal vital signs for adult horses.  Determination of these parameters can be essential in an assessment of a patient's health.  Even horses with what might appear to be only a mild depression may be in critical condition.  Knowing your horses baseline values, and comparing those to times when one might suspect that he is ill, can be a VERY helpful aid in triaging the priority level of a veterinary response.

General Assessment:  Emergency medical technicians are trained to first look at a persons mental status before ever touching the patient.  This can be very important in horses as well.  Although this aspect may not always considered a "vital sign", whether the horse is excited or depressed can be an initial first clue on the horse's overall condition.  Whether he is interested in feed or grass or not will tell the owner very quickly if the horse is ill.  Generalized shaking, abnormal rolling, or on the other hand, a good mental status of frolicking through the pasture should be taken into consideration.

Temperature:  The normal temperature for the horse is 100.0 degrees.  However, a horse's temperature can vary somewhat with the season.  During the winter, it is not uncommon for the temperature to drop to as low as 97.  But usually, we are not concerned with temperature that are low, but rather, trying to determine if he is running a fever from an infection.  During the winter, any temperature above about 100.5 should be suspect, with average fevers normally running from 101.5 up to 104.  The summer heat, as well as any exercise, can often raise the core temperature upward even without a fever.  This must be taken into account when the assessment is made.  A race or show horse, after intense competition, can have a core temperature up to 105!!  Even at rest, in the summer heat under a tree, a temperature of 101 would not be considered abnormal.  So events preceding the acquisition of the temperature must be taken into account before it is interpreted.   Taking a horses temperature is usually done rectally with either a standard glass or digital thermometer.

Pulse:  The normal pulse rate, most often taken by listening to the heart on the left side of the chest just behind the left elbow, is 40 beats per minute.  Horses that are fit may have rates as low as 28, and this is not considered abnormal.  However, ANY rate above 40, even 44, should be looked in the context of how the horse is feeling.  Rates between 40-60 are considered "serious", but may be explained by an elevated temperature.  However, rates above 80 are considered "critical" and indicate a very serious problem.  Of course, these rates apply to a horse at rest, and any exercise just before taking the pulse should be taken into consideration.  Also, if the horse is suddenly excited, it may be elevated on a very temporary basis.  Listen to the rate for at least a minute, checking to see if it comes down, before recording the final rate.

Respiration:  The normal rate for horses is the same for adult humans, that being between 12-20 breaths per minute.  However, many things can effect this that must be taken into consideration before considering whether it is abnormal.  One common factor is his temperature.   Other characteristics of breathing, rather than just the rate, may be more of an overall indicator of problems.  Deep heavy breathing, or breathing with an extra abdominal effort, abnormal noise, labored breathing, or gasping are all indications of a very serious problem.  Report any observations that are anything but quiet and easy breathing.

Mucus Membrane Colour:  The normal colour is pink.  Gums that are pale, deep red, purple, overly yellow, or streaked with the appearance of small broken blood vessels are abnormal and should be recorded.  Some of the causes for abnormal appearance are listed below:
Pale:  Low perfusion of blood indicating a "shock" condition.
Deep red:  Congested membranes, also a shock type condition with toxicity.
Purple or blue:  Low oxygen levels or serious toxicosis.
Overly yellow:  Gums are normally slightly yellow, but very yellow may be a liver problem.
Petecial hemorrhages:  Certain types of toxicosis.

Capillary Refill Time:  After depressing the gums, the colour should return withing 1-2 seconds.  Delayed return of colour, 3 seconds or more, is an indication of poor blood perfusion, often brought on by serious dehydration, shock, or other toxicosis.

Borborygmus:  This refers to the sounds that the gut makes in digesting the feed.  A horse should have a normal gurgling sound on both sides of the abdomen back near the flanks.  Several horses should be assessed before making a determination of what can be considered "normal", "none", "low", or "hypermotile".  During colic episodes, horses with little or no gut sounds may be in serious condition.  A hypermotile gut may be indicating an irritation, and this may be coupled with a loose stool or diarrhea.  Assessing the gut sounds from one moment to the next may indicate whether a horses condition is improving or deteriorating.  Take this, and all of the vital signs, frequently.

Hydration State:  The best way to determine hydration is through an assessment of the horses blood parameters.  However, using the "skin turgor test" can often be a quick field aid.  The skin over the shoulder should be pinched with some elevation of the skin.  If it snaps back into place very quickly, the horse may be considered to be adequately hydrated.  Any delay should be suspect and assessed along with the other vital signs.  Older horses tend to have a more relaxed skin, so this should be taken into account.  Again, assessing this parameter when the horse can be considered healthy will help determine if this is abnormal.

Conclusion:  It is important to state that in a patients assessment, the vital signs must be taken as a whole.  One parameter that may be outside the normal boundaries may not be overly significant when all of the others are within normal bounds.  Also, some signs may adequately explain why others are abnormal, such as an increased pulse rate associated with a fever.  However, reporting all of the signs before veterinary help arrives can often give a much clearer picture on the level of concern and the response rate.

Red Maple Leaves are Toxic to Horses

We are sad to have to report that one of our patients recently died to apparent ingestion of Red Maple Leaves (Acer rubrum).  This occurred when the horse ate the downed leaves that had fallen into his pen.  The toxic principle is unknown, and there is no known antidote.  The clinical signs include a hemolytic anemia.   That is where the red blood cells are broken down and the patient looses the ability to transport oxygen in the blood.  Even if the blood can be replaced with a transfusion, there is a further concern of renal failure due to the destroyed red cell components.  Take time to check pastures to see if red maple trees exist.  If they do, gather the leaves so that the horses will not be tempted to eat them. 

This Page:  Hit Counter   25 October 2004


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Last updated on: 24 June 2011 at 1218R hours