Learning to Take Your Horse's Vital Signs
As a horse owner or caretaker, it is important to know what constitutes a normal temperature, heart rate, and respiratory rate for a horse. Having a set of normal values for comparison when you suspect that your horse is ill can be helpful to you and your veterinarian in determining how quickly your horse needs veterinary assistance. The normal vital signs for adult horses are in the margin and mentioned throughout this section. Learn these ranges…and learn what is normal for the horses under your care. Monitoring these signs regularly when your horse is healthy will help you quickly recognize an abnormal finding.
Taking your horse's temperature regularly will give you a good idea of what is normal for him and can also be your earliest indication that your horse is ill. The normal temperature for a horse is 99 to 101.5°F. However, a horse's temperature will vary with the season. The summer heat of north Florida and exercise will both raise a horse's temperature. During the heat of summer it is not abnormal for a perfectly healthy horse resting in the shade to have a temperature of 101.5°F. So remember, take the environment into account when interpreting your horse’s temperature. Although an elevated temperature doesn't always indicate a severe condition, it is always recommended to call the your veterinarian if you get a temperature reading over 101.5°F
How to get a temperature reading …
The most accurate way to take a horse's temperature is rectally. The plastic digital thermometers available at any drug store work very well as they are easy to read and fast. As an added bonus, most of them beep when they are done, as you can’t always see the thermometer face while it is working. If you use an older mercury-type thermometer, be sure to shake down the mercury before each use.
The horse should be tied or held by an assistant standing on the same side as you. Lubricate the tip of the thermometer with petroleum jelly or Vaseline. Move the horse's tail to the side and out of the way and insert the thermometer into the horse's rectum, angled slightly towards the ground. Stand close to the horse's hip. Do not stand directly behind the horse, because some horses don't like this and might kick out . If this is the first time you have taken your horse's temperature, take a few minutes to get him used to you feeling his rump and moving his tail before you insert the thermometer. This can make the process go more smoothly.
Not leaving the thermometer in long enough — this can result in an artificially low temperature reading.
The horse's heart rate can be a key piece of information when determining your horse's health status. Heart rate can be elevated from pain, fever, blood loss, fear, nervousness or excitement. The normal pulse rate, most often taken by listening to the heart on the left side of the chest just behind the left elbow, is 40 beats per minute (bpm). You can purchase an inexpensive stethoscope from some drug stores, horse supply stores or from your North Florida Equine veterinarian. If you don't have a stethoscope, you should be able to feel a pulse on the underside of the left jawbone. Under the jawbone, there is a major artery that sticks out slightly. Using your forefinger(s), press against the artery until you can feel a pulse. Count the pulses in a 15-second period and then multiply by 4 to gets beats per minute.
- < 28 bpm: Horses that are in good physical condition may have rates as low as 24, and this is not considered abnormal.
- 40-60 bpm: Considered "serious", but may be explained by an elevated temperature.
- >60 bpm: Considered "critical" and indicates a very serious problem.
The rates above apply to a horse at rest, and any exercise just before taking the pulse should be taken into consideration. Also, if the horse is suddenly excited, it may be elevated on a very temporary basis. Listen to the rate for at least a minute, checking to see if it comes down, before recording the final rate.
Taking a heart rate on a nervous horse (this will give a much higher heart rate)
Double-counting heartbeats (lub-dub = one beat)
The respiratory rate is taken by watching the rise and fall of the chest or the flare of the nostrils. The normal respiratory rate for horses is between 8 and 20 breaths per minute. When trying to determine if your horse is within the normal range, keep in mind that many factors can increase this number, including a high temperature, excitement, and exercise. Other characteristics of breathing may be better indicators of a problem, including: deep heavy breathing, flared nostrils, breathing with abdominal effort, abnormal noise, labored breathing, outstretched neck and/or gasping. Report any observations that are anything but quiet and easy breathing to the veterinarian when you call.
Allowing the horse to sniff your hand when measuring respiration rate (they will sniff more quickly than their regular rate).
Mucous Membrane Color and Capillary Refill Time
Lift his upper lip and check out your horse’s gums; the normal color is pink. Gums that are pale, deep red, purple, overly yellow, or stippled with the appearance of small broken blood vessels are abnormal and should be reported to your veterinarian.
After you check out the color, press a finger firmly onto the gums and release. The color should return within 1 or 2 seconds. This is "capillary refill time" and gives a way to assess perfusion of blood in the tissues. A delayed return of color (2 seconds or more) is an indication of poor blood flow, often brought on by severe dehydration, shock, or other serious disease.