Vet Call 911

Learn about the 10 most common horse emergencies—and when it’s time to call for a lights-and-siren response from your vet…or not.

It’s 9 p.m. on Saturday. Your horse has stubbed his toe and is “off” on it. You run for the phone to call your vet. “Emergency! Emergency!” you shriek. “I need you right away!”

It’s 9 p.m. on Saturday. I’ve just sat down for the first time in 14 hours after a full day of really difficult appointments. I hear my pager buzzing at my side. “I sure hope that isn’t Ms. Panic Button telling me her horse has stubbed his toe again,” I think. “I just might lose my patience if she insists she needs me right away.”

Do you see the problem here? As a seasoned equine practitioner, I’ve learned that some owners’ definition of an emergency and mine are often very different. In fact, the definition of an emergency (according to is “a sudden, urgent, usually unexpected occurrence or occasion requiring immediate attention.” So what does that mean to me? Blood spurting from a wound on your horse’s head? Yes. Violent thrashing and rolling? Absolutely. An intermittent lameness that’s been going on for several days? Probably not.

Here, I’ll provide info that will help you understand when it’s really time to shriek “Emergency!” and when it’s best to count to 10. I’ll begin by giving you a top-10 countdown of the most common equine emergencies I see, complete with guidelines to help you decide whether a lights-and-siren response is really called for. Then I’ll help you understand the best way to handle any urgent call you make to your vet.

1. Colic
What it is: Your horse has a belly ache.
What you’ll see: Your horse’s colic symptoms can range from mild depression, a lack of interest in food, and reduced manure output over several days time to sudden, severe, violent rolling and throwing himself on the ground. Your colicky horse might also paw, roll, stretch out as if to urinate, and look back at his sides.
Lights and siren? Sometimes. Pain from colic can be sudden and violent—and a severe colic can require immediate attention, or even surgery to save your horse’s life. Even if signs are mild, however, it’s always best to give your vet a call. Be prepared to answer questions about your horse’s condition, and provide basic vital signs such as his heart rate and whether you can hear gut sounds. I may simply give you over-the-phone advice initially, knowing that many colic episodes resolve without treatment. If your horse’s colic symptoms are prolonged or severe, however, I’ll definitely provide a lights-and-siren response.

2. Laceration
What it is: Your horse has cut himself.
What you’ll see: A cut should be fairly obvious—you’ll see a defect in your horse’s skin with resulting blood and sometimes swelling.
Lights and siren? Sometimes. Whether a cut requires an emergency response is one of the hardest decisions to make. An emergency vet visit definitely is called for if there’s uncontrolled blood spurting from the wound, or if it’s accompanied by severe lameness that could mean there’s a serious underlying injury (such as a fracture). In all other instances, most wounds can wait at least until you count to 10. Perhaps one of the most useful things you can do is take a picture of your horse’s wound with your cell phone camera, and text it to your vet before you call. This helps in deciding if its location makes it dangerous, or if it requires sutures.

3. Eye Injury
What it is: Your horse has hurt his eye.
What you’ll see: Your horse’s eye may be swollen, with either a clear or cloudy discharge. If he’s in pain, he’ll squint. And if his cornea has been damaged, you may see a bluish haze over the surface of his eyeball.
Lights and siren? Rarely. Although it’s not wise to let an injured eye go untreated, rarely does one require a race-to-the truck response. When you notice a problem, call for advice. Be prepared to let your vet know if you can see your horse’s cornea, and if so, whether it looks clear or cloudy. If you do notice a hazy/bluish appearance to the surface, chances are your vet will want to see his eye sometime soon. If it’s simply swollen, or just has a discharge, it probably can wait until tomorrow.

4. Choke
What it is: Your horse has developed a blockage in his esophagus, making it impossible for him to swallow.
What you’ll see: Saliva and feed material coming from your horse’s mouth and nose. He’ll cough and gag as he tries to relieve the blockage.
Lights and siren? No. The majority of chokes will resolve on their own, often in a fairly short period of time. And even if your horse is choked for several hours, he’s likely to be fine. Although a choke episode may eventually require a visit from your veterinarian, there’s no reason to panic when it starts. Call your vet to let him or her know what’s going on and get advice, but don’t expect a 911-type response.

5. Abscess
What it is: Your horse develops a pocket of pus inside his foot.
What you’ll see: Your horse may be severely lame, and you can feel a bounding pulse in the blood vessels that supply his feet. His lower leg might be swollen, beginning at the coronary band and extending up to his knee or hock, or sometimes even higher. If you’re lucky, you might detect a small, slit-like opening at his coronary band with a stinky discharge—a sign that the abscess has opened and drained.
Lights and siren? No. You may want to call your vet for advice, but most of the time an abscess won’t require an immediate response. Instead, you may be directed to poultice your horse’s foot, or soak it in a warm bath with epsom salts to try to draw out the abscess and encourage it to drain. If it hasn’t improved within a day or two, it’s probably time to schedule a visit so your vet can attempt to identify the pocket and open it to relieve the pressure. The only time I’m likely to respond to an abscess with lights-and-siren urgency is when a client’s horse is so painful that I believe something more serious could be going on, such as a broken leg.

6. Fracture
What it is: Your horse has broken a bone.
What you’ll see: With most leg fractures, your horse will be completely non-weightbearing on the affected leg—he’ll actually put no pressure on the foot at all when he’s asked to take a step. His heart rate may be elevated (80 beats per minute or even more), indicating that he’s in great pain. If the fracture is severe, you may be able to see where the bone is dangling, or even worse, where its broken ends are exposed through an accompanying skin wound.
Lights and siren?
Yes. This calls for immediate veterinary attention. If a fracture can be surgically repaired, it’s critical that the bone be stabilized in a splint or cast to minimize further damage to the bone or surrounding soft-tissue structures. And the sooner your horse makes it to the surgery table, the better chance he has for recovery. If a fracture isn’t operable, a rapid response can help minimize your horse’s suffering before your vet administers the drugs for euthanasia.

7. Founder
What it is: The fleshy connections between your horse’s coffin bone and hoof wall have become inflammed and painful.
What you’ll see: Your horse will make it clear that his feet are very painful. If only his front feet are affected, he may rock back on his hindquarters and place both front feet out in front of his body, exhibiting a typical “founder stance.” If his hind feet are involved, he’ll shift his weight back and forth between his two hind legs, and may jerk his feet into the air with every step he takes. You may be able to detect strong or bounding pulses in the vessels that supply his feet. If he’s very painful, he may lie down or refuse to move, and his heart rate may be elevated due to pain.
Lights and siren? Not necessarily, although you’ll probably want a vet visit before too much time. You should definitely call for advice the minute you see any signs of founder, such as foot sensivity when walking on gravel or turning in a tight circle. In a perfect world, you’ll call your vet well before your horse’s signs become severe. Founder is an urgent situation, but shouldn’t require a race to your farm.

8. Tie-Up Episode
What it is: Your horse develops whole-body muscle cramping.
What you’ll see: Your horse will be normal one minute, and in excruciating pain the next as his body seizes up with muscle spasms. He’ll sweat, sometimes paw, and refuse to move. You’ll feel the large muscles of his back and hindquarters harden, and they’ll become very painful to the touch.
Lights and siren? Sometimes. A severe tie-up episode can cause your horse to become violently painful, and if he’s not treated appropriately, breakdown products from his cramping muscles can lead to long-term kidney damage. It’s best to avoid administering non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications at the time of a tie-up because of the potential double-whammy on his kidneys. Call your vet instead.

9. Fever
What it is: Your horse has contracted a viral or a bacterial disease, causing his temperature to elevate.
What you’ll see: Your horse may seem depressed, lethargic, and disinterested in food. When you take his rectal temperature, it’ll be elevated above the normal high value of 101.5 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s not uncommon for viral infections to cause a fever as high as 105 degrees Fahrenheit.

Lights and siren? No. Unless your horse is exhibiting other symptoms, a simple fever rarely requires an emergency response. If you call for advice, your vet is likely to suggest you administer a dose of an anti-inflamatory medication such as phenylbutazone or flunixin meglumine (Banamine), and retake his temperature in an hour. In the majority of cases, the horse’s temperature will decrease and he’ll be feeling better. Most viral diseases cause a fever for a period of 48 to 72 hours. If your horse fails to respond to medications, the fever is persistent, or he develops other symptoms, a visit may be suggested—but it can certainly wait until you count to 10.

10. Complicated Foaling
What it is: Your mare is ready to deliver her foal, and labor has begun.
What you’ll see: With a normal foaling, you’ll see or hear fluid coming from her vulva, followed by the amniotic sac—a translucent bag of tissue that preceeds the foal. Within 10 minutes’ time, your foal should be making his way into the world. If it takes longer, or you see anything other than the foal’s two front feet and nose, something isn’t right.
Lights and siren? Always. A complicated foaling always justifies a lights-and-siren response, because just a few minutes’ time can mean the difference between life and death. In fact, if I know a client’s mare is showing signs of foaling soon, I’ll keep my clothes by my bed so I’ll be at the ready the minute I get a call. And even if it’s a false alarm and everthing is normal when I arrive at the farm, I’ll still be happy I was called—better safe than sorry.

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