Every horse is an individual, and it’s important to be very familiar with your own horse’s habits and typical way of being so that you will know right away if something is amiss. Even minor changes in behavior or condition can herald illness or an overall decline in horse health. Early detection of illness can make all the difference in success or failure of treatment.
In this article we describe some common signs of ill health in a horse and provide sound advice on responding to these signs. Read on to learn more.
What You'll Learn Today
Do Horses Get Sick Easily?
Well-cared-for horses who have ample pasture, feed, hay, water and shelter, along with regular, preventative veterinary and farrier care do not get sick easily. That’s why we have the idiom “healthy as a horse”.
The key to having a healthy horse is all in the preventative care. A horse needs a safe, clean environment, consistent feeding and regular attention. If you are able and willing to provide these elements, your horse should stay healthy.
Loss Of Appetite
Just as with people, a poor appetite may indicate illness. If your horse goes off his feed, it’s a good idea to look him over carefully and take his temperature.
In addition to examining your horse for signs of problems, you should also examine his droppings. If they are hard and small, you may suspect impaction.
This problem is common among horses who live in a stable and get little or no turnout time. Regular bran mashes or adding soaked beet pulp to the feed help avoid this problem.
If your horse seems to be alright but still does not want to eat, there may be something wrong with your feed. Horses’ sense of smell and taste are very finely tuned, and they will often refuse stale feed, even in small amounts mixed with fresh feed.
To avoid having your horse reject feed, be sure that all of your feed is fresh and clean your mangers, feed dishes and troughs between feedings.
Remember that horses are designed to nibble constantly, so loss of appetite and failure to eat can compound and quickly cause serious problems. If your horse refuses to eat for a full 24 hours, call your vet.
Weight Loss Can Indicate A Wide Variety Of Problems
It can be hard to keep your horse in good condition. This is especially true for high strung horses who tend to be finicky eaters. If you are having trouble keeping weight on your horse, the first thing you should look at is the amount and quality of the feed you provide.
If your horse gets a lot of strenuous exercise, you may be able to resolve your problem by increasing the amount you are feeding or upgrading the quality of feed.
Horses who live outdoors in the wintertime need more feed to stay in good condition because keeping warm burns up energy. This is especially true of thoroughbreds who are literally thin-skinned and burn up even more energy than most horses just to stay warm.
Worm infestation can also cause weight loss and overall loss of condition. You should worm your horse regularly and have your vet test for worms at every physical exam.
If your horse has a digestive disorder, weight loss is sure to be a problem. Chronic damage of the intestinal lining can negatively impact nutrient absorption.
Horses suffering from chronic liver damage or chronic diarrhea have difficulty keeping weight on.
Horses with dental problems may have trouble grinding food down. Chewing is the first step to good digestion, and poorly chewed food does not break down properly in the intestinal tract.
This leads to poor absorption of nutrients. If your horse tries to eat but drops food from his mouth, chokes or otherwise cannot swallow it properly, have your vet check his mouth and teeth.
What To Do About Weight Loss
If your horse seems to be losing weight and does not seem to have any specific malady, try increasing the amount of hay you are feeding. Increasing grain is also a possibility, but you must be careful not to feed too much grain as this can cause blood sugar spikes and problems with laminitis.
An improvement in the quality of feed you provide may take care of any weight loss problems. Adding supplements, such as flax seed oil can also add calories and nutritive value.
To prevent problems with worm infestation, switch the type of wormer you use from one time to the next. Don’t just get a different brand with the same ingredients.
Look for brands with different ingredients because worms may develop resistance to some ingredients. Alternating treatments can help prevent this problem.
If you do not get positive results from worming and feed improvement within a couple of weeks, you should call your vet to perform a full exam (including teeth) and to run some blood tests. Blood work reveals a wealth of information, including:
- Bacterial infection
- Bowel damage
- Viral infection
- Liver damage
Poor Coat Condition
A horse’s winter coat is naturally dull, but for the rest of the year, your horse’s coat should be slick and glossy. If your horse has a dull or long coat at other times of year, it is an indication of a problem. If your horse has a fever, his coat will become dull very quickly.
Poor nutrition can also cause a dull coat. In this instance, improving feed quality and/or supplementing with vitamins and minerals may solve the problem.
In some instances, dull coat indicates severe worm infestation. In others, it may indicate chronic kidney or liver damage or a metabolic disorder, such as Cushing’s syndrome.
Excessive washing can also dull your horse’s coat. When you wash your horse with shampoo or soap, it removes the oil from the skin and coat.
Just as with humans, stripping away natural oils leads to dull, dry hair. It can also lead to dry, itchy, flaking skin. It is best to keep your horse clean with regular currying and brushing. Avoid bathing unless it is absolutely necessary.
Other Common Signs Of Ill Health In A Horse To Watch For
1. Stiffness and reluctance to move can be a sign of disease, such as tetanus or laminitis, as well as of injury or lameness
2. Swollen abdomen and/or legs may be indicative of poor circulation, which may be due to infection or lack of exercise
3. Signs of injury such as swelling or abnormal enlargement of any part of the body
4. Stiffness and/or difficulty moving about may indicate problems such as tetanus
5. Pushing the head against a wall or into a corner (i.e. head pressing)
6. Changes in bodily functions such as urination or defecation
7. A very large belly may indicate severe worm infestation
8. Limping or lameness may indicate injury or laminitis
9. Resting of a front leg may indicate injury or laminitis
10. Lethargy and unresponsiveness may indicate illness
11. Patchy sweating can indicate dehydration
12. Rapid, noisy or labored breathing
13. Reduced or increased urination
14. Diarrhea or hard droppings
15. Dropping food while eating
16. Any abnormal discharge
17. Lack of coordination
18. Difficulty breathing
19. Excessive thirst
20. Nasal discharge
Know Your Horse Well To Prevent Problems
Taking good care of your horse requires keen awareness on your part, especially in relation to early signs of ill health in a horse. Observe your horse carefully and check him over every day.
Developing a habit of daily grooming gives you the perfect opportunity to examine carefully and watch for any changes in behavior.
If you notice even the smallest change in appetite, attitude or condition, be vigilant and make changes as needed to address small problems before they balloon into large ones.
How To Recognise Signs Of Ill Health
Frequently Asked Questions
The first thing you should do if you suspect your horse is ill is contact your veterinarian. Get a proper diagnosis before trying any treatments. Once you know what’s wrong with your horse, your vet can help you devise a care plan.
Generally speaking, just like a sick person, a sick horse needs peace and quiet and a safe place to rest. Most times, free access to fresh clean water and good quality hay are recommended.
Several small meals a day typically work better than one or two large ones for a horse who may have lost its appetite. For a specific plan to suit your horse and your situation, consult your vet.
It’s important to be familiar with how your horse usually looks and behaves so that you can recognize any change in appearance and behavior. Changes can be early signs of illness.
It’s also smart to learn how to measure your horse’s vital signs: temperature, pulse and respiration (TPR). Once you’ve learned how to check your horse’s vitals, do it regularly (e.g. weekly) so that you will know what’s normal for your horse. That way, when you see variations, you will know something is wrong.
You can keep your horse healthy be providing the necessities outlined above. Providing consistent care is of the utmost importance in keeping a healthy, happy horse.
Remember that horses are creatures of habit, so you should avoid sudden changes. Work out the right diet for your horse and stick to it. If you need to make dietary changes, transition gradually.
Set up a regular schedule of care and stick to it. Your horse should know when to expect his or her feed, grooming and exercise. An erratic schedule creates an anxious horse, and anxiety leads to illness in all living things.
Provide preventative care on a regular basis. Have your farrier out every month-six-weeks to trim your horse’s hooves and take care of shoes if necessary. Have your vet out at least once a year to perform a complete physical and administer vaccines.
Note that, in some instances, your farrier may provide tooth care as well as hoof care. Otherwise, be sure your vet checks your horse’s teeth and floats them as needed.
As with most animals, rabies is almost always fatal in horses because there is no sure-fire treatment for it. That’s why it’s important to have your horse vaccinated for rabies as recommended by your vet.
Other equine diseases that are nearly always fatal include African Horse Sickness (AHS) which is a virus transmitted by mosquitoes and other vectors. There is no vaccine for AHS, but use of fly spray and other protections against vectors can reduce its spread.