Equine Vitals- Temperature, Pulse, Respiration
Before we dive into abnormal conditions, it is important to have a good understanding of normal. Now what is normal for one equine, may not be normal for all. All owners should have the ability to take basic vitals. Vitals are critical pieces of information during an emergency scenario. They are always beneficial to know for the day-to-day well-being of the animal. We are going to go through the standard list of vitals, how to collect them and what are the threshold values. Some vitals require equipment to take like temperature. This is not a full list, and this is for guidance. Please remember to take caution and exercise care when handling equines. You may need to elicit help to collect this information from the animal for their safety and yours.
Behavior- Most horses are alert and responsive. This means that their heads are up, they respond to sound stimuli and interested in engaging with each other and surroundings. Further, clarification of alert and responsive is bright or quiet. Bright is head up high, interested in surroundings and has good awareness of situation. Quiet is typical of the older been there done that horse that is not excited about anything but is easy going and responsive to cues. Beyond these too most commonly we see two common abnormal behavior classifications: anxious and dull. Anxious horses are not responding to cues, often moving all around and unable to settle down. Dull horses also have limited response to cues, but these horses do not seem to engage with other horses or the environment either and seem to have low energy. Non-responsive is another term used and it is reserved for horses that no stimulus seems to create a response in, these are often down horses.
Stance- Horses have four legs, they typically use all four legs. In simplest terms, stance is referring to how they are standing (or not). Horses are most commonly seen standing. We do catch some laying down to sleep and all horses require periods of time down. Key to stance is observation. Is the horse standing? Is the horse bearing weight on all four limbs? Is one leg being rested frequently or only toe touching? If the horse is down, is it on one of its sides or belly? The down horses head position can be important information as well. Most horses when they stand up from rolling will shake off. It can be important to know what is normal for your animal as some like to lay down daily.
Temperature: This is a critical vital. Every owner should know how to take this measurement and know where the necessary equipment is located. To take a horse’s temperature, you will need a thermometer. The thermometer can be a cheap human digital one (this is what is used and dispensed by the practice). Once locate thermometer, it is lubed (spit is acceptable) and inserted into the rectum of the horse between 1.5inches and 3inches. Press button and wait for bump then remove and read. Now, it is important that during an emergency it is not the first time you have tried to take your horses temperature. Some horses object. You should be sure to stand off to the side, close to the hip, reach around and gently move tail out of way to reduce risk of getting injured. Again, during an emergency should not be the first time you are attempting to take the temperature. The normal range for a horse will be 98.0-101.5 degrees Fahrenheit. Over 101.5 is abnormal and should consult with your veterinarian. ALWAYS TAKE TEMPERATURE before administering any medication.
Heart Rate: Heart rate and pulse refer to the number of times the animal’s heart contracts per minute. This number gives information about the fitness level of your horses but always provides clues about their level of comfort. As a horse becomes more uncomfortable, their heart rate rises. A pulse is a reflection of the heart rate and is the result of changes in pressure in vessels between different stages of the heart’s contraction cycle. Pulse and heart rate should be equal to one another thus collecting one is sufficient. Without equipment, one would collect pulse. If have a stethoscope (equipment), then heart rate from auscultation of the heart on the left side at point of elbow is probably faster to collect. For the pulse there are two standard locations to feel for the pulse. Our preferred location is at the facial artery and is located on the underside of the jaw, inside of the jawbone in an area that would be between the eye and ear if drew line straight down from both. Feeling for a vessel about the size of a no2 pencil, it’ll move as slide finger down edge of jawbone. Once locate, it will take a little practice to hold pressure over so can feel the expansion of the vessel with each beat. Helps to practice on both sides of the jaw and to have vessel running over the “pads” of your index and middle fingers. Count for 15 seconds once get comfortable with feel then multiply that number by four to get beats per minute. This is the preferred location because once learn it is easier to feel under normal conditions and safer under all conditions. The second and more commonly taught location is for the digital arteries at the back side of the fetlocks. There are two arteries that track up the back side of the legs and at the area of the fetlock these can be palpated. Bend down so that can feel the back side of leg. Place index finger pad on the inside back edge and thumb pad on outside back edge and slide them down cannon area until reach the fetlock. At the level of the fetlock there are two bones called the sesamoids. As you feel down the leg you will run into these bones with this hand placement. Some horses can find the pulse as you reach these bones on the topside of the fetlock. This takes practice and these can be difficult to impossible to find in a healthy normal horse. If locate, count the expansion of the vessel for 15 seconds and multiply by four to get pulse. Being able to accurately get a count is likely going to take some practice. Use that practice to help establish a normal rate for your animals. The accepted normal rates are 28-40 beats per minute with an alarm number of 60 beats per minute. Have any questions, consult with your veterinarian, we will be happy to teach you this skill.
Respiratory rate: How many breaths is your horse taking per minute? Respiratory rate can give clues to both heart rate and temperature as it typically will increase as either of these increase. An elevated respiratory rate can mean there is an elevated heart rate from discomfort, but it can also mean that the temperature is elevated so be sure to take those vitals as well. There are multiple ways to take respiratory rate some are easier than others and some are more accurate than others. We do not recommend placing hands in front of nostrils and feeling for air being expelled, horses like to sniff and this will increase the rate. Often, it is possible to stand back and just observe the expansion and fall of the ribs. Counts are for 15 seconds and multiplied by four. A horse at rest should have a rate of 8-24 breaths per minute, this number will be higher with work. Under normal conditions, there will be limited to no flaring of the nostrils per breathing cycle. There is a lot of variation in respiratory rate making it not super effective vital by itself. Always take with heart rate and temperature.
Mucous Membranes/ Capillary Refill time: This is two pieces of vital information, but collection of these vitals can occur at the same time. Mucous membranes is referring to the color of the gums and other mucosal surfaces. This color reflects tissue perfusion with blood and oxygen. Better blood flow results in the normal appearance of these tissues as a bright pink. As they have less blood flow and thus less oxygen they will turn to a blue hue and can even turn white. These structures are also normally moist in feel. The color helps to give clues about the overall state of the body and the health of the whole animal. Capillary refill time uses the perfusion of the membranes to provide information about perfusion, hydration and blood flow. Refill time is normally less than 2 seconds. It increases as perfusion decreases, as dehydration starts to occur and as blood flow is reduced through the body. To check these vitals, one would lift up the upper lip and assess the color roughly 1/2inch above the tooth. Once color is assessed, capillary refill time is checked by applying pressure from end of finger in this region for a few seconds then removing finger and counting as color is restored to the are pressure was applied.
Being able to take vitals on your horses can be critical to good communication with your veterinarian. As you build a relationship with your veterinarian, having the ability to provide this information can help to determine how critical your animal is during an emergency and get timely care. With the national storage of equine veterinarians, veterinarians are often triaging cases and clients that can provide solid description of the status of the horse with accurate vitals is almost requirement for prompt care. The above is only the start but it is a list of things that every horse owner should know how to safely do. It is also important that every owner has a baseline of normal before they start looking for abnormal conditions.
This is only a guide. It is not complete and does not replace the need for veterinarian involvement.
San Pedro Veterinary Service- Dr. Alltop