Equine Vet Services

Vital Signs
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Quick Facts: (Read this whole page for more information)

Temperature- A horse's normal body temperature is 99 - 101 F
Pulse- 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 36 to 42 beats per minute.
Young stock and ponies tend to be a bit faster.
Respiration-The normal rate for horses is between 8-12 breaths per minute. 
Capillary refill time (time it takes for color to return to gum tissue adjacent to teeth after pressing and releasing with your thumb): 2 seconds.

Every horse owner needs to know what is "normal" for their horse. Knowing how your horse acts and reacts
when he is feeling good will help you to faster realize when there is something "not right" with him.
Reporting all of the signs before veterinary help arrives can often give a much clearer picture on the level of concern
and the response rate.

This page is to educate you on a horse's vital signs. Knowing the vital signs, learning what is normal and what is not,
will help you take care of them, and aid you in knowing when to call a vet.

Below are the
normal vital signs for adult horses.  If you can determine the normal parameters of your horse that can
be essential in your assessment of his health.
Even horses with what might appear to be only a mild depression may be in critical condition. 
Knowing your horses normal vital signs, and comparing those numbers to times when one might suspect that he is ill,
can be a VERY helpful aid in determining how quickly he needs veterinarian assistance.

 Whether he is interested in feed or grass or not will tell the owner very quickly if the horse is ill.  Horses are never
"just not hungry".

Temperature:  Take your horse's temperature when he is healthy so you can get a normal reading for him.
The normal temperature for the horse is 100.0 degrees.  However, a horse's temperature can vary somewhat
with the season.  During the winter, it is not uncommon for the temperature to drop to as low as 97.  But usually,
we are not concerned with temperature that are low, but rather, trying to determine if he is running a fever from an
infection. 
During the winter, any temperature above about 100.5 should be suspect, with average fevers normally running
from 101.5 up to 104.  The summer heat, as well as any exercise, can often raise the core temperature upward even
without a fever.  This must be taken into account when the assessment is made. 
A race or show horse, after intense competition, can have a core temperature up to 105. Even at rest, in the summer
heat under a tree, a temperature of 101 would not be considered abnormal.  So events preceding the acquisition of the
temperature must be taken into account before it is interpreted.  
A high fever doesn't always indicate a severe condition,
but if his temperature is over 102 F, you should call your veterinarian.

How To Take a Horse's Temperature:

The most accurate way to take a horse's temperature is rectally. 
Always secure a string to the end of the thermometer, so that it doesn't get lost  
The plastic digital thermometers work very well and are generally easier to use, 
and most of them beep when they are done. 
Be sure that if you use an older mercury-type thermometer, 
that you shake down the mercury before taking the horse's temperature.

The horse should be tied or held still by an assistant. 
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 - but most don't mind. 
For the most accurate reading, leave a mercury thermometer in position for at least 3 minutes. 
Many digital thermometers work well in less than 1 minute.

Important: Always clean the thermometer well before returning it to its case...
and especially if used on an ill horse, to prevent the spreading of an illness.

Pulse:  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. 


Checking the pulse rate.

Another place to check the pulse rate.

Horses that are fit may have rates as low as 28, and this is not considered abnormal. 
However, ANY rate above 40, even 44, should be looked in the context of how the horse is feeling. 
Rates between 40-60 are considered "serious", but may be explained by an elevated
temperature.  However, rates above 80 are considered "critical" and indicate a very serious problem. 
Of course, these rates 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.

Respiration:  The normal rate for horses is between 8-12 breaths per minute. 
However, many things can effect this that must be taken into consideration before considering whether it is abnormal. 
One common factor is his temperature.  Other characteristics of breathing, rather than just the rate, may be more of an
overall indicator of problems. 
Deep heavy breathing, or breathing with an extra abdominal effort, abnormal noise, labored breathing, or gasping are all
indications of a very serious problem.  Report any observations that are anything but quiet and easy breathing.

Mucus Membrane Color:  The normal color is pink.  Gums that are pale, deep red, purple, overly yellow, or streaked
with the appearance of small broken blood vessels are abnormal and should be recorded.  Some of the causes for
abnormal appearance are listed below:
Pale:  Low perfusion of blood indicating a "shock" condition.
Deep red:  Congested membranes, also a shock type condition with toxicity.
Purple or blue:  Low oxygen levels or serious toxicosis.
Overly yellow:  Gums are normally slightly yellow, but very yellow may be a liver problem.

Capillary Refill Time:  After depressing the gums, the color should return within 1-2 seconds.  Delayed return of color,
3 seconds or more, is an indication of poor blood perfusion, often brought on by serious dehydration, shock, or other
toxicosis.

Borborygmus:  This refers to the sounds that the gut makes in digesting the feed.  A horse should have a normal
gurgling sound on both sides of the abdomen back near the flanks.  Several horses should be assessed before making a
determination of what can be considered "normal", "none", "low", or "hypermotile". 

During colic episodes, horses with little or no gut sounds may be in serious condition.  A hypermotile gut may be
indicating an irritation, and this may be coupled with a loose stool or diarrhea.  Assessing the gut sounds from one
moment to the next may indicate whether a horse's condition is improving or deteriorating.  Take this, and all of the
 vital signs, frequently.



 


Your vet will listen for "gut sounds" (digestive sounds) in the locations above on both the
left and right side of your horse. You should be familiar with the normal gut sounds your horse has.

Hydration State:  The best way to determine hydration is through an assessment of the horses blood parameters. 
However, using the "skin turgor test" can often be a quick field aid.  The skin over the shoulder should be pinched with some
elevation of the skin. 
If it snaps back into place very quickly, the horse may be considered to be adequately hydrated.  Any delay should
be suspect and assessed along with the other vital signs.  Older horses tend to have a more relaxed skin, so this
should be taken into account.  Again, assessing this parameter when the horse can be considered healthy will help
determine if this is abnormal.

Conclusion:  It is important to remember that all  the vital signs must be taken into account when assessing your
horse's health/problem.

One parameter that may be outside the normal boundaries may not be overly significant when all of the others are
within normal bounds. 

Also, some signs may adequately explain why others are abnormal, such as an increased pulse rate associated
with a fever.  However, reporting all of the signs before veterinary help arrives can often give a much clearer picture on the
level of concern and the response rate.

 

 

 
 

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Equine Veterinary Service
4025 Coleman Cut Road   Paducah, KY. 42001
Phone (270) 554-6601     Fax (270) 554-0089

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Email evs@paducah.com
If your horse is injured, lame or ill please call us for an appointment.
We will not offer advice, diagnose or treat a horse by email.

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