We’ve had a lot of requests this month for how to tell an emergency from something that can wait until the morning or through the weekend. The following situations hopefully will help you differentiate the emergency from the non-emergency.
Painful eyes are always an emergency! I cannot stress this enough. Horse eyes are not like human eyes, they don’t just spontaneously get better on their own. Waiting an extra day or two can mean the difference between a few hundred dollars of treatment and a few thousand dollars of treatment. I’ve heard that eye pain is one of the worst pains you can feel, so imagine what your horse is going through! The rule of thumb for an eye is if it’s red/painful/swollen/draining, you should have that eye seen within 24 hours. DO NOT treat the eye with whatever you have on hand until it can be seen! There are many medications that can be used in some situations but not others, and you run a huge risk of making the eye worse if you treat with something you were given at another time for another horse.
Now an eye that is just a little drainy but is still open and comfortable, that can probably wait until the morning. Horses can and do have environmental allergies, which can cause some drainage, and so can clogged tear ducts. As long as the eye isn’t painful, you’re ok to wait.
Eyelid lacerations are also an emergency and should be seen right away. Horses are in dire need of their eyelids, so if one gets cut, it makes it really easy to get an ulcer along with it because the lid is no longer doing what it’s supposed to.
We’ve all come out to the horse that is non-weight bearing lame. It’s always terrifying because the first thought that comes to our mind is “broken leg.” However, it takes A LOT of force to break a leg, and while I have seen them, they’re not very common. If you come home and find your horse lame out in the pasture, ask yourself these questions to tell if you need to pay the emergency fee: Are there any cuts or punctures on his leg, especially around the joints? Is there any swelling? If there is swelling, is it hot or painful to the touch? Is the horse able to bend his leg normally in all directions? When you feel around on the skin, is there any feeling of “bubble wrap,” where you feel like you’re popping little air bubbles under the skin? If the answer to ALL of these questions is no, you are probably ok to wait until the morning, especially if you have a little Bute sitting around. If the answer to any of these questions is yes, you should probably call. While it may not be a broken leg, it could be an infection of a vital structure (like a joint or a tendon sheath) that can get more difficult to heal the longer you wait.
The Down Horse
Down horses can be very confusing because they aren’t telling you exactly what’s wrong. We’re used to hearing about the overtly colicky horse. You know, the one who is rolling constantly, sweating, biting at its sides, stomping. But sometimes colic can be expressed just by a horse that is laying down. Laying down can really just be an indication of discomfort of some sort, even if it isn’t colic. I’ve seen choked horses laying down.
Here is how to tell if you need to call the vet: go out and get the horse up. You may even have to be a little mean, maybe getting a lunge whip to help encourage him. Once he’s up, assess how long it takes him to lay back down. If he immediately goes back to eating, you’re probably ok. If he gets up but doesn’t start eating or starts drooling, or if he lays back down within 20-30 minutes, you may want to reach for the phone. The other thing you can try is giving your horse a dose of ORAL Banamine (flunixin meglumine). Oral Banamine takes about an hour to work. If your horse starts laying down at any time between 1 and 24 hours after you give that Banamine, it’s time to call. If the first dose of Banamine doesn’t work, a second dose won’t work either, so don’t bother. If, after one hour, the horse seems better, take his feed away and monitor him for 24 hours. He can have small bites of fresh grass or a few handfuls of alfalfa every few hours if he doesn’t start laying down again. After 24 hours, if he’s still comfortable, slowly re-introduce him back to his original feed.
Any laceration that goes more than skin deep has about six hours for a veterinarian to see it to be able to sew it closed. After that six hours, it starts to get healing tissue, and infection also starts to set in. Once this happens, it’s really hard to get a wound to stay closed with stitches. So, if you’re wanting a smaller scar, the sooner you call, the better. If the wound looks more than a day old, it’s probably not an emergency to be seen. Now, there are some wounds that can’t be closed. These include punctures, and wounds that go deep into the muscle, or wounds that are “upside down,” where the skin portion of the laceration is higher than the muscle portion. These sometimes can wait until the morning as long as the infection hasn’t set in and the horse has a current tetanus shot. A current tetanus shot means one given in the last six months. It’s always a good idea to have a tetanus shot boostered every year. We do still see tetanus and it’s entirely preventable with a $10 vaccine.
Any wound on a leg where the leg is also lame, particularly if the horse can’t put any weight on it, needs to be seen right away.
ADR (Ain’t Doin’ Right)
Most of us know our horses pretty well, so it’s pretty easy to tell when they aren’t feeling well. The easiest way to tell if your horse needs to be seen is to take their temperature. If the thermometer reads over 101.5, he is considered feverish. Fevers aren’t necessarily an emergency, unless they are persistent despite medication, or the fever keeps spiking several days in a row. At that time, bloodwork should be considered but the horse doesn’t need to be seen immediately. Banamine can be used to control the fever until a veterinarian can look at him in non-emergency hours. If your horse is ADR but has no fever, you may want to call the vet and consult on whether they should come out or not.
Foals. Are. An. Emergency. If anything seems off with a foal, even if you can’t tell what is wrong, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Foals fall off the edge very quickly, so the sooner we can get to them, the better. Things to watch for are diarrhea, fever, and if momma has a big bag, indicating the foal isn’t eating.
Pipe stream, watery diarrhea is an emergency. Horse’s guts are easily penetrated by bacteria, and they get sick and die VERY quickly from diarrhea. Most times they need a lot of veterinary care if their diarrhea turns watery. If your horse has cow pies, or solid feces with a little watery material on the outside, it can wait until normal business hours. However, if the cow pies are associated with colic or fever, it’s time to call.
Obviously, these are not all the scenarios where you may or may not need a vet. If you are ever in doubt, a simple call can help you, even if you don’t want to have the vet out. Remember, Hayes Equine Veterinary Services has a 24-hour emergency line. Just call and leave your name and number on the emergency line and the doctor on call with call you as soon as they are available. The other thing to do is to make sure you have a dose of Bute and a dose of Banamine on hand. This can save you a lot of time, money, and worry if you can give your horse something for pain and see if it works before you call. If it works, awesome. If it doesn’t, call!