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FAST FACTS: Normal Equine Vital Signs
Temperature: 99-101 F
Heart Rate: 36-42 beats per minute
Respiration: 8-12 breaths per minute
Capillary Refill Time: < 3 seconds
Learn to take your horse’s vital signs BEFORE an emergency arises.
What constitutes an emergency?
IMMEDIATE…Call us right away:
- Colic – your horse is rolling and won’t get up, or gets up and goes right back down again
- Choke – your horse is gagging, extending his neck, and may have food particles coming from his nostrils
- Severe Bleeding
- Dystocia – your mare is having trouble foaling
- Retained Placenta
URGENT…Call us that day:
- A squinting painful eye
- Colic…your horse won’t eat and is depressed
- Fever (temperature >101.5° F)
- Non-weight bearing lameness or founder
- Retained placenta (should be expelled within 3 hours of giving birth)
How to take your horse’s vital signs:
As a horse owner or caretaker, it is important to know a horse’s normal vital signs. Comparing your horse’s normal values to times when you suspect that he is ill can be a very helpful aid to you and your veterinarian in determining how quickly your horse needs veterinary assistance.
The normal vital signs for adult horses are in the margin above and mentioned throughout this section. Learn these ranges…and learn what is normal for the horses under your care. These are valuable pieces of information to have when trying to determine if a horse merely has mild depression or is actually in critical condition.
Taking your horse’s temperature regularly will give you a solid idea of what is normal for him and can also be your earliest indication that he is ill.
The normal temperature for a horse is 100.0 degrees. However, a horse’s temperature will vary with the season. The summer heat of north Florida and exercise will both raise the core temperature. For example, after intense competition a race or show horse can have a temperature of up to 105. Even resting in the shade during the heat of summer, a temperature of 101 would not be considered abnormal. So remember to take the environment into account when interpreting your horse’s temperature. Although a high temperature doesn’t always indicate a severe condition, it is always recommended to call the clinic if his temperature is over 101.5 °F.
How to get a temperature reading …
The most accurate way to take a horse’s temperature is rectally. The plastic digital thermometers available at any drug store work very well as they are easy to read and fast. As an added bonus, most of them beep when they are done, as you can’t always see the thermometer face while it is working.
The horse should be tied or held by an assistant standing on the same side as you. Lubricate the tip of the thermometer with petroleum jelly or Vaseline. Move the horse’s tail to the side and out of the way and insert the thermometer into the horse’s rectum,
angled slightly towards the ground. Stand close to the horse’s hip. Do not stand directly behind the horse, because some horses don’t like this and might kick out – but most don’t mind. If this is the first time you have taken your horses temperature, take a few minutes to get him used to you feeling his rump and moving his tail before you insert the thermometer. This can make the process go much smoother.
Horses can’t tell us when they are in pain, so the heart rate becomes a key piece of information when trying to decide just how sick you horse may be. 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 (bpm). You can also feel a pulse on the inside of your horses jaw bone.
- < 28 bpm: Horses that are in good physical shape may have rates as low as 28, and this is not considered abnormal.
- 40-60 bpm: Considered “serious”, but may be explained by an elevated temperature.
- 80 bpm: Considered “critical” and indicate a very serious problem.
The rates above 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.
THE RESPIRATORY RATE
The normal respiratory rate for horses is between 8 and 12 breaths per minute. When trying to determine if your horse is normal, keep in mind that many factors can increase this number, including a high temperature, excitement, and exercise. Other characteristics of breathing may be better indicators of a problem. Indications that there is a problem include deep heavy breathing, flared nostrils, breathing with abdominal effort, abnormal noise, labored breathing, outstretched neck and/or gasping. Report any observations that are anything but quiet and easy breathing to the veterinarian when you call.
THE MUCOUS MEMBRANE COLOR
…AND CAPILLARY REFILL TIME
Lift his upper lip and check out your horse’s gums; the normal color is pink. Gums that are pale, deep red, purple, overly yellow, or stippled with the appearance of small broken blood vessels are abnormal and should be reported to your veterinarian. 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
After you check out the color, press a finger firmly onto the gums and release. The color should return within 1 or 2 seconds. This is “capillary refill time” and gives a way to assess perfusion of blood in the tissues. A delayed return of color (3 seconds or more) is an indication of poor blood flow, often brought on by severe dehydration, shock, or other serious disease.
Say what?! This word refers to the sounds your horse’s guts make as they digest his food. As with taking a pulse, a stethoscope can really help when listening to the abdomen. You should hear gurgling and splashing sounds near the flank area on both sides of the abdomen. A complete lack of any sound is an indicator of a serious problem. An increased amount of sounds can indicate irritation or diarrhea. Like all vital signs, practice this one often when your horse is normal and relaxed.