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Ask The Veterinarian: Common Emergencies, Part I


The veterinarians at Full Circle Equine received a request that our ASK THE VET segment this month focus on the most common emergencies seen in our practice.  So Dr. Ellen Yungmeyer and Dr. Kakki Wright have come up with a common emergency list for this area. The list got long, so look for the second installment of this piece in next month’s issue of the Mid-South Horse Review.

COLIC.  This one tops the list.  It is one of the few words that strikes fear in the hearts of all horsemen, and is the leading cause of death in horses.  What is colic?  It is a broad term that describes abdominal discomfort.   What are the causes?  There are many causes of colic; some of the most common ones include a change in feed or hay, decreased water consumption, temperature (too cold or too hot), change in barometric pressure, and change in environment. As you can see, even the most subtle of changes can be the causative agent.  Often we may be able to pinpoint the cause, but many times we don’t ever know why a horse colics on a given day. What’s going on inside that is causing colic?  Common causes of pain can be a transient spasm, impaction, gas distension, or displacement.  More severe causes can include entrapments and torsions.  What are the most common signs? The most common early signs include not eating, pawing, turning to look at belly, lip curling, and lying down.  Worsening signs include rolling, thrashing and dangerous behavior.  What do you do if your horse is colicking?  Remove all feed and hay.  Call your veterinarian.

This is a condition that needs to be addressed by your veterinarian, not your next door neighbor. It is easier to treat the initial colic rather than one that has progressed to a more critical level.  Take your horse for a walk while waiting for your veterinarian.  Number one rule:  Stay safe! A horse in severe discomfort can be a danger.  When in doubt, wait for the veterinarian.  Number two rule:  Always take your horse’s temperature before you give any medication.  It is important to know if your horse has a fever, as many medications will mask that important fact. 

SUDDEN, SEVERE, UNILATERAL LAMENESS.  Acute, severe lameness of one limb is considered an emergency until proven otherwise.  What can be the causes?  There are several possible causes of sudden onset lameness such as sole bruises, hoof abscesses, and puncture wounds that can usually be resolved fairly quickly with proper care. 

However, when your veterinarian hears the word “sudden,” he or she worries about the other more severe causes of sudden lameness such as foreign body (i.e., nail) in the hoof, fracture in the limb, or joint infection.  What should you do?  First, examine your horse’s affected leg and foot for any wounds, nails, heat, or swelling. If your horse needs to get to the barn, walk slowly if he/she is willing. Call your veterinarian, describe the clinical signs, and make a plan.  Acute lameness is usually considered an emergency that should be seen to quickly; call the veterinarian!

LACERATIONS.  I’m not sure if these are seen more in winter months because horses may be more fresh when it’s cold or if it’s simply that I remember the cold weather injuries the most: a terrible barbed wire wound that took hours to suture by truck headlights in an ice storm. There is a long list of those stories in most seasoned veterinarians’ portfolio.  Thankfully I now have a clinic with good light and heat where I can attain more accurate closure of the wound, and the horse (and I) can be more comfortable!  These types of injuries are definitely worthy of discussion as emergencies!  What can be the cause?  It’s fairly straight forward – some sort of trauma has created the emergency.  What should you do?  If you find a wound or laceration you should ask:  is the horse in distress; is there active bleeding; is it located in a critical location (joint, tendon sheath, eye)?  If there is bleeding, apply a pressure bandage. Then, call your veterinarian.  I often tell my clients to text me pictures of wounds so I can help assess the situation. There is a window of about eight to twelve hours for successfully suturing wounds, so the sooner it’s done, the more successful the outcome.
EYE INJURIES.  Because of their large size and prominent location, a horse’s eyes are very susceptible to injuries.

Consider any eye issue an emergency.  There have been occasions when what appeared to be a mild ocular issue to a horse owner is a problem that has progressed to a serious situation rapidly.  What are the most common signs?  Eyelid swelling, tearing or drainage; holding the eye closed; change in color of globe; redness; and lacerations are common problems. What are common causes?  Corneal abrasions or ulcers, blunt trauma, and anterior uveitis (moon blindness) are common causes of ocular disorders. What should you do? (drumroll…)Call the veterinarian!  Eye disorders can be extremely painful, and left untreated they can lead to loss of vision, so prompt diagnosis and treatment are crucial.

LAMINITIS.Also called “founder,” this is another condition that strikes fear in the minds of most horse owners. Laminitis occurs when the laminae, which act like Velcro to hold the hoof capsule onto the coffin bone, become inflamed. If severe, these finger-like attachments lose their grip and the coffin bone and hoof wall begin to separate. What are the signs? You will most likely see a change in weight bearing and posture, as well as reluctance to walk. Laminitis can affect all feet or just one, but most often it occurs in both front feet. There is a characteristic stance in which horses try to bear as little weight as possible on the front end, so they rock back onto their hind feet. Some horses spend long periods of time lying down because it is too painful for them to stand. What causes it? Laminitis has many causes, but some of the most common are lush spring pasture, grain overload, and Equine Metabolic Syndrome or Cushing’s Disease. What should you do? If you think your horse has laminitis, you should call your veterinarian and take away grain and fresh grass until your horse is examined. 

Now that you’re prepared for our five most common emergencies, be sure to read the March issue of the Mid-South Horse Review to see the next five! If you have questions about these emergencies or others, talk with your veterinarian or feel free to contact Full Circle Equine. Submit your veterinary questions to the Facebook page,

Cartoons courtesy of Ian Culley, creator of Happy Horse Cartoon Corral and owner of Mighty Pencil Press.  Visit:

About the cartoonist: Ian Culley has been drawing funny pictures since he got his first box of crayons. After graduating from Art School, he started his own company: the Mighty Pencil Drawing Club. He discovered horses in 2002 and became “addicted.” He  lives with his wife Sue, three cats, a yellow lab, and four horses on a farm in Ontario, Canada. Visit his website: and see Cully’s cartoon illustrations at:

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