Something interesting happened a few weeks ago. It was early on a Saturday morning, and I was the emergency vet on duty. Within the space of 10 minutes I got pages from two horse owners with horses that “weren’t right.” Both farms are about an hour’s drive from me, and wouldn’t you know, one was directly north and the other straight south. Here’s what they said when they called, and what happened that day as a result.
Caller #1 said, “Patches seemed OK last night but is off feed this morning. I don’t know if he is sick enough to have you come out. What do you think?” Of course I didn’t have enough information to know what to think, so I started asking questions: “Have you taken his temperature and heart rate? How is he acting? Does he have gut sounds? Is he making manure? What do his membranes look like? The owner replied that she didn’t have a thermometer, didn’t know how to get his heart rate or listen for gut sounds, and didn’t know what I meant by membranes.
Caller #2 also told me that her horse, a mare named Suzy was off feed this morning. I asked the same questions, and this was her reply. “I knew you’d ask, so here is what I’ve found out. Her temperature is just 99.5, the heart rate is 42 and she is making manure. There aren’t many gut sounds on the left, but on the right she sounds more active than normal. Her membranes are pink.”
I told both callers that I would get back to them within 15 minutes and then sat down with a cup of coffee and thought about how I was going to handle the two calls. It would be tough to get to them both within a reasonable time because they were so far apart geographically. Did I need to see both, or neither?
I knew from experience that caller # 1, no matter how I might instruct her over the phone, would not/ could not get me the information that I needed. The only way I would be able to tell if Patches had a serious problem would be to go and check him out. On the other hand, caller # 2 had given me enough to know that there was not an immediate crisis, and that I might not have to go to her place at all. I called her back, and thanked her for gathering the information on Suzy. I said that from what she had told me I thought we could wait a bit, but that she should stay in touch.
I then called Owner #1 and told her I would be right out.
By the time I saw Patches he actually was looking pretty good. His temperature was normal and he was breathing easily and at a normal rate. His heart rate was normal. and gut sounds were good. When I offered him some hay he took it readily. Perhaps he had suffered a bout of gas colic that had since passed. His owner had spent a good deal of money getting me out on an emergency call and evaluating her gelding. Had I known what was going on before I left, I could have told her to hold off for awhile and maybe she wouldn’t need to pay for that farm call. Before I left I gave her a lesson on how to do the simple evaluations that tell so much about a horse’s health status. I was on my way back and wondering how Suzy was doing when her owner called me on my cell phone. She reported that her mare had started eating, had made manure, and would probably be fine.
The point of this is that there a few simple observations that you can do yourself with diagnostic equipment that will cost you less than $25. Be ready to report your findings when you call. The information you give over the phone will be a tremendous help to your veterinarian. The important questions will be asked. If you have the answers ready for your vet, you will have their respect.
It’s better for your horse and your wallet to know how to take a temperature, check for heart rate, listen for gut sounds, and check for membrane color. If you aren’t totally sure on how to make the observations or don’t have the thermometer and stethoscope to do them with, my suggestion is to corner your vet next time he or she is on the farm. Tell them you would like to learn how to evaluate your horse. I can assure you that they will be happy to take the time. Down the road this might save you money and them a midnight trip.
–David A. Jefferson, DVM