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Signs of Illness

General Signs

Changes in the horse’s condition or behavior may be the first signs of illness or general poor health. If an illness can be detected early on, the developments to come will often be much less serious. Signs of declining health may be detected by changes in an animal’s appearance – in its body condition or coat, or any abnormal enlargement or swelling. Changes in behavior, including loss of appetite, dullness, or nervousness, are also indicative that something may be wrong. In addition, alterations in body functions, such as abnormal discharges, difficulty breathing, or abnormal passing of urine or droppings, should all be matters of concern. Horses are creatures of habit. Careful observation during the daily checks of the horse is important to spot any small variation that may show if something is not normal.

The horse’s appetite is often the best guide to health. If a horse fails to eat properly, it is always worth an attempt to find a reason. A horse’s coat is a good indicator of its state of health since the gloss is lost when the horse is ill. Patchy sweating is always a sign that something is wrong, possibly that the horse is dehydrated. A simple test to detect dehydration utilizes the fact that when the skin of a dehydrated horse is pinched, it is very slow to return to its normal shape. A generalized loss of body condition is often a sign of chronic illness. In some conditions such as chronic liver damage from ragwort poisoning, poor overall condition may be the only sign. In other conditions, changes in the shape of the body may be seen; for example, a “pot belly” is often the sign of a serious worm infestation. Accumulations of lymphatic fluid beneath the skin may cause swelling of the legs or abdomen, and are a sign of poor circulation, insufficient exercise or infection.

Change in body functions such as breathing - when respiration becomes rapid, labored, or noisy, with or without coughing and nasal discharges – are often symptoms of illness. Excess drinking, infrequencies in urination, loose or hard droppings – or an absence of droppings, drooling or dropping food from the mouth are also signs that should raise concern. Stiffness and reluctance to move can be a sign of disease, such as tetanus or laminitis, as well as of injury or lameness. Resting a foreleg is also abnormal. Dullness, lassitude and general lack of interest are also behavioral changes that need investigating. More obvious signs such as tremors, paralysis, lack of coordination, or head pressing, indicate something serious and professional help is necessary in these situations.

Weight Loss

Keeping conditioning on a horse is often a problem, particularly in fine-bred individuals that are picky eaters. The first consideration is obviously whether the animal is receiving enough food. If it is having regular, strenuous exercise, weight loss may be due to the fact that the horse is receiving insufficient grain in its ration. It is often very difficult to keep condition on Thoroughbreds outdoors in winter. Despite receiving large amounts of extra food they may still develop a poor condition. This stems from the fact that their thin skin provides little protection from the elements, and the extra energy intake is utilized in simply maintaining the body temperature. Worms are a primary cause of a horse’s failure to thrive. Their presence can be detected via testing. Regular deworming of all horses, especially those in pasture is essential to help keep them healthy. Digestive disorders can also be associated with weight loss. This problem can occur with chronic damage to the lining of the intestine, which affects the absorption of nutrients. Similarly, chronic diarrhea and chronic liver damage may also cause horses to become thin. Dental problems sometimes result in inefficient grinding of food and poor digestion.

Loss of appetite can be one of the first signs of illness, so if a horse leaves its food and appears dull or “off-color” it is sensible to check its temperature. If the horse is interested in food, but fails to eat it or drops it from its mouth, chokes or brings it back up through its nose, a vet should be called to check on its teeth and mouth. When a horse fails to eat, it is also advisable to look at its droppings. If the droppings are very hard and the quantity is small, the animal is probably suffering from an impaction. This is a common problem in stabled horses, and bran mashes and other laxatives are sometimes given to prevent this. Horses have highly developed senses of taste and smell. They do not like stale food and may not eat fresh food when it is mixed with it. Mangers should be cleaned out before each feed, and all uneaten food should be removed before fresh food is added. Finicky eaters can sometimes be tempted by adding sweeteners such as molasses to the ration. If a horse eats nothing for 24 hours, there may be a serious problem and a veterinarian should be contacted immediately.

Condition & Coat

If the horse appears to be losing weight, first check its diet and try giving it extra food in the form of grain. For your horse’s next worming, deworm with a different type than the one you last used since worms sometimes develop resistance to certain drugs in the medication. If no improvement occurs soon, roughly within the span of two weeks, call a veterinarian. A vet can check the horse’s teeth, and treat them if necessary; they can also take samples for further analysis. Blood tests are very useful because they can indicate not only liver or bowel damage, but also overwork, anemia, and mild bacterial and viral infections that may be showing few other symptoms. Loss of condition is a sign of many chronic diseases. If extra feed and worming do not produce the desired results, get the horse checked sooner rather than later. Delay in detection and treatment of some chronic diseases can make them much more difficult to cure, and could permanently affect an animal’s subsequent health and performance.

Except for the times when a horse is in pasture during the winter, a horse’s coat should always have a glossy appearance. A dull coat usually means that something is wrong, and may be a sign of a serious worm infestation or an internal disorder such as chronic liver or kidney damage. Horses with fever rapidly lose shine from their coats. Some mineral and vitamin deficiencies can also be reflected in a poor coat. A few commercial mineral and vitamin supplements are available which are specifically designed to improve horses’ coats. Washing a horse removes naturally waterproofing oils from the coat, and should be done only when necessary.



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