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Ask the Vet, Sallie S. Hyman VMD, DACVIM: Equine Vital Signs. What's Normal?

Vital Signs

Every horse owner should now what the normal temperature, heart rate, and respiratory rate (TPR) for their horse and know how to obtain these numbers. In addition, you should also know some other basic "normal" such as borborygmi (gut sounds), mucus membrane color, and capillary refill time.  Knowing what is normal will help you when things aren't so normal.  This is important and useful information that you can convey to your veterinarian if you suspect your horse is having a problem. 

Temperature (T)

A horse's normal body temperature ranges from 99-101° F.  Your horse's normal body temperature can vary up to three degrees depending on environmental factors such as the weather, stress, and exercise.  It will be higher in warmer weather, if he is excited, if he has just exercised, and often times, in the early evening.  You should take your horse's temperature at different times of the day to get a baseline for what is normal for your horse.

How to take your horse's temperature: 
Currently, the most accurate way of taking a horse's temperature is rectally.  Today's plastic digital thermometers have made this much quicker and easier.  No matter what type of thermometer you use, digital or mercury, it is a good idea to tie a string with a clip onto it in order to keep from losing it if it should drop on the stall or, heaven forbid, get sucked in.  Lubricate the thermometer with Vaseline, KY jelly, or spit.  Stand next to your horse, not directly behind him, and gently insert the thermometer into the rectum.  Wait for a digital thermometer to beep or 2-3 minutes for a mercury one.  Clean your thermometer thoroughly with soap and water or alcohol after each use to prevent spreading disease.

Any temperature about 102° F or higher should prompt a call to your veterinarian.  A fever does not always indicate an infection, but any condition that increases normal body temperature should be looked at. 

Heart Rate (HR)

The normal heart rate of an adult horse at rest is 30-40 beats per minute (bpm).  Foals have a higher resting heart rate that averages 70-120 bpm. Your horse's heart rate will be higher if he is excited, in pain, has certain diseases, or has just exercised.

How to take your horse's heart rate:
To take your horse's heart rate you can either use a stehoscope to listen to his heart or feel his pulse on his facial artery or digital artery.  These tow arteries are easy to find for most people.  The facial artery runs along the outside of the bottom of his jawbone.  The digital artery runs on the outside of his leg at the level of his fetlock.  Press down gently over the artery to feel the pulse.  to use a stethoscope, place it on your horse's chest just behind the elbow.  You can count the number of beats in fifteen seconds and multiply by four.

Heart rates no associated with exercise, especially if combined with abnormal behavior should be taken seriously.  Any heart rate over 40 bpm warrants a call to your veterinarian.  A heart rate over 60 bpm indicates a severe condition and should be treated as an emergency.  

Respiratory Rate (RR)

A normal respiratory rate for an adult horse is 8-15 breaths per minute (bpm).  Respiration should consist of inhalation and exhalation, which should be of equal length.  Heat, humidity, exercise, fever, and pain can cause increase in the respiratory rate.

How to take your horse's respiration rate: 
Watch as your horse's chest moves in and out, or place your hand on his chest to feel it move in and out.  You can also use your stethoscope to listen to the breaths either on his lungs or on his trachea.  Again, count the number of breaths for fifteen seconds, and multiply by four.

A high respiratory rate, increased effort when inhaling or exhaling, or noise when breathing should prompt a call to your veterinarian.

Borborygmi (Gut Sounds)

Horse's intestines are in almost constant motion and that results in constant noise from them.  Sometimes the sounds may be quieter than others, but they are always there.  Excessive sounds may indicate irritation or inflammation of the intestines, as in the case of diarrhea.  The absence of borborymi can indicate a serious problem, such as colic.

How to listen for Gut Sounds:
You can place your stethoscope on either side of your horse's flank and listen for gurgling, gassy, and "fluidy" sounds.  You should be able to hear these on both sides.  You can also place your ear to your horse's flank and listen if you don't have a stethoscope.  Most horse's have load enough gut sounds that you can hear them even without a stethoscope.

If your horse has no borborygmi and any other signs such as loss of appetite, fever, pawing, or laying down, contact your veterinarian.  

Capillary Refill Time (CRT)

Capillary Refill Time (CRT) is the time it takes for blood to return to blanched tissues in the gums.  This is an indicator of blood circulation.  Normal refill time is one to two seconds.

How to check your horse's capillary refill:
To check your horse's CRT, lift his upper lip and press on his gums.  Count how long it takes for the normal pink to come back to the area you pressed.

If your horse's CRT is three seconds or more it can indicate poor circulation, dehydration, or illness.  Contact your veterinarian.  

Mucus Membrane Color

Mucus membranes are th tissues that line the eyelids, lips, gums, nostrils, and vulva.  The color of the mucus membranes is another indicator of blood circulation.  Healthy mucus membranes are a moist pink.  They can sometimes have a pale yellow tinge to them as well.  Dry mucus membranes may signal dehydration.

Color can indicate various conditions:
  • Very pale pink:  blood loss, anemia
  • White: severe blood loss anemia, shock
  • Bright red/red purple: toxicity, mild shock
  • Gray/Blue: severe shock, decreased oxygen
  • Bright yellow:  Liver disease

If your horse's mucus membranes are any of the above, contact your veterinarian immediately

Knowing what is normal for your horse will help you determine when thing are NOT normal, and provide a wealth of information for your veterinarian. 

Registered 2011 Equestrian Collections; Author:  Sallie S. Hyman,  VMD, DACVIM, CVA  

Information in this article is for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for evaluation by an equine professional.  In particular, all horse owners should seek advice from a veterinarian for their horses medical needs. 

 
 

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