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Checking a Horse's Vital Signs Including Pulse, Temperature and Respiration

No matter what breed of horse you have, it's important to have some basic knowledge of how to evaluate your horse's general condition.

When the horse's owner is alert and able to perform some basic health checks, it can help your veterinarian keep your horse in the best possible health. Knowing how to spot problems early before they can become serious is the best possible preventative.

The most basic things every horse owner should be able to assess are temperature, pulse, and respiration. When you are able to evaluate these signs, and can also check the color of the horse's mucous membranes and listen to its gut sounds, you will have a good general picture of your horse's health status. It will also help you to deal with any minor problems that may arise before they become serious.

How tomeasure your horse's temperature:

The most accurate method of checking a horse's temperature is rectally. You should keep a plastic, digital thermometer in your horse's medical kit.

These thermometers are safe, simple to use, inexpensive, and readily available from a number of retailers. Most are operated by the touch of a button. Make sure the thermometer is lubricated, using KY Jelly or petroleum jelly, before inserting it in the horse's rectum.

Most digital thermometers beep when they are done reading, although you may need to time others. It usually takes between one to three minutes for a reading. The horse's temperature will be shown on the digital display.

One caution--make sure that you do not lose the thermometer inside the horse. The rectum will naturally attempt to draw the thermometer inside. You can prevent this by making sure to keep hold of the thermometer firmly at all times, or you can tie a string to the end of the thermometer and clip it to the horse's tail.

Normally, a horse's temperature will be between 99.8 F and 101.3 F. Keep in mind that the weather can affect temperature. In warm weather or during exercise, stress, or excitement, a horse's temperature will naturally rise.

These natural variations are one good reason to take your horse's temperature at different times and in different situations, at times when your horse's health seems fine. This will give you an idea of your horse's normal temperature so you can more easily spot an abnormal reading.

Generally speaking, temperatures over 102 degrees indicate some kind of disease. Infections caused by bacteria, such as infected injuries or respiratory conditions, usually result in temperatures in the range of 102.5 to 103.5.

If the infection is caused by a virus, early temperature readings may be slightly below normal. This is similar to the 'chills' people feel in the early stages of a viral cold. Later, temperatures can be very high, from 104.5 to 105.5 or higher.

Some infections will cause a biphasic fever. This means that the horse may have a normal temperature in the morning, but later in the day it will spike a high fever. If you are concerned that your horse might be ill, it is therefore important to check and record the horse's temperature twice daily to spot patterns.

How to check the pulse:

There are several spots on a horse where the pulse can be felt. These are beneath the jaw, under the tail at the tailbone, or at the side of the horse's foot. If you have trouble finding the pulse, ask your veterinarian to show you these spots at your next appointment. Also, if you place your hand on the left side of the chest, just under the elbow, you will be able to feel the heart's beat.

Most horses won't stand still long enough for you to count the pulse for a full minute. To simplify things, you can count for fifteen seconds and then multiply the result by four.
Why check the pulse? This measures the rate and strength of your horse's heartbeat. Normally, a resting horse has a pulse of 38 to 40 beats per minute. When exercising, a horse's maximum heart rate can exceed 180 beats per minute. However, in resting horses, a heart rate over 80 can be a sign of a serious problem. If a calm horse has a pulse that is consistently over 60, it can also be a problem.

Things that can increase the horse's heart rate include exercise, fear, pain, stress, and excitement. Also, infections and injuries can raise the horse's heart rate.
Most commonly, an elevated heart rate in horses is caused by colic or intestinal pain. These elevations can be mild to severe, and the amount of increase can be a sign of the severity of the horse's pain.

Also, the strength of the pulse can sometimes indicate other problems. If the pulse is weak or soft, it can be an indication that the heart isn't pumping forcefully enough. This can be a sign of heart disease.

When a horse is exercising, it will often have a hard or forceful pulse. This is a natural reaction and allows the heart to pump more blood and transport more oxygen to the muscles. However, a hard pulse can also be a reaction to some drugs or toxins, or can indicate certain diseases.

As with temperature, knowing your horse's usual resting heart rate and pulse strength can help you to distinguish whether or not there is a problem.

Also, owners who are interested in improving their horse's physical conditioning may wish to make note of the horse's rate of return, after exercise, to its normal resting pulse. This measurement is the single best indicator of the horse's fitness. Being able to check your horse's pulse is an excellent way to monitor the effectiveness of your horse's training and fitness regime.

How to check the respiration

When checking your horse's respiration rate, it's important to note that your horse's inhalations should take roughly the same amount of time as its exhalations. The horse's respirations can be counted in three ways--watching the horse's nostrils move as it breathes, watching the horse's torso for the movement of the ribcage and belly, or by listening at its trachea or windpipe. This is called auscultation.

You have probably watched your veterinarian auscultate various areas of your horse using a stethoscope. You can do the same thing by simply placing your ear against your horse's neck to listen for the sound of the air moving through the trachea or lungs. However, caution should be used when doing this. If your horse is well and calm, this is relatively safe. If your horse is ill, injured, or stressed, it may be less tolerant of your nearness.
Again, you can listen for fifteen seconds and multiply the number of respirations by four to achieve the number of breaths per minute. Normally, a horse will breathe between 8 and 10 times per minute.

If your horse shows a high respiratory rate, it can indicate several things. Pain, excitement, stress, fever (which you can now check for), or infection can all cause an increase in the respiratory rate.

If the horse has an upper respiratory infection (a 'head cold'), the thick mucous in the trachea and sinuses can increase respiration and make it more difficult for your horse to breathe. Just like a human with a stuffy nose, allergies and heaves can make it more difficult for the horse to breathe. This can easily be heard, even without a stethoscope.
By learning how to measure your horse's temperature, pulse, and respirations, becoming familiar with its resting, healthy measurements, and knowing its usual gum color and gut sounds, you will be more familiar with its basic health condition. More importantly, you'll be much more likely to be able to spot a problem and can notify your veterinarian early, potentially avoiding more serious and costly issues from developing.

When you can tell your veterinarian these vital signs over the phone during a consultation or emergency, the veterinarian will have a more complete picture of what is happening with your horse. This means you will receive more accurate and helpful treatment for your horse.

Read the next horse health tips article on Heat stress.
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