When was the last time your horse was normal? Depending on what is going on, duration can have a significant effect on outcome. Problems that have been going on for some time may be easier to diagnose, however prognosis can often decrease if a situation persists for too long. The sooner we can begin treatment, the better chance we have of a return to normal.
You know your horse best, so it’s important to express how you believe he’s feeling. Is he normally whinnying and running to the gate for his dinner, but now he’s standing in the corner with his head low? This could be a sign of illness. Horses also love to eat, and when they stop eating, this is often a cause for concern. Decreased appetite or a quieter than normal attitude can be a sign of many things, but this sign may be an important piece of the puzzle.
The normal heart rate of a horse is 28-42 beats per minute (bpm). This can vary a little bit, and excited horses may get up to 60 bpm. An elevated heart rate can mean several things, but we usually think of dehydration, anemia or pain. Dehydration leads to a decrease in blood volume, causing the heart to beat faster to compensate. Similarly, in anemia, a decrease in red blood cells causes the heart to pump faster. Pain can lead to rates of 60-100 bpm. When we begin to see heart rates approaching 80-100, this can indicate severe pain or vascular compromise. This can change the urgency of a situation. A lot of information can be gleaned from the heart rate, so be sure to have that number ready when you call. If you’re not sure how to take a heart rate, ask your vet the next time he or she is out! Or you can check out this article from The Horse for more information.
The normal temperature range of a horse is 99° F to 101° F, but some horses may run a little cooler (such as 98°). An elevated temperature may not necessarily be a fever - a horse that has just worked or been trailered may increase their temperature a small amount. Given this leeway, we generally say a fever is anything above 102° F. Fevers are tricky because they can point in many different directions. Twenty percent of fevers in horses go undiagnosed. The ones we do diagnose are usually caused by infectious disease (like anaplasmosis) or inflammation (such as enteritis). Keep in mind, as well, that various treatments can lower a fever, so it’s best to talk to your vet before initiating any type of treatment. Here is some more information from the AAEP on this topic.
Did you just move to a new barn? New load of hay or other change in feed? It’s possible that this sudden change is contributing to your problem. While we may not notice any problems with the hay or grain, horses can be picky eaters, sometimes for good reason. Sudden changes in feed or environment can wreak havoc on the horse’s internal systems, often by upsetting the normal gastrointestinal bacterial population. An alteration of routine (new barn, new feeding schedule) can cause stress, which can lead to ulcers or behavioral problems.
As veterinarians, we need to accumulate as much information as possible to paint a clear picture of the problem. Animals do talk to us, but in a different language. All of these questions give us tools to help decipher that language and figure out what is going on, and lead us to a resolution.