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Horses: When to call the emergency vet

Despite their size horses can fall prey to a wide range of problems needing prompt veterinary attention.
Use the information below to learn when you need to call an emergency vet to your horse.

Is it serious enough to call the vet?

Deciding what constitutes an emergency and when the vet needs to be called in can be a difficult decision for the horse owner. Despite their size and power horses can be fairly delicate. They can often pull up lame, suffer cuts and bruises and experience mild fever and reduced appetite. In a large percentage of cases these are not true emergencies, but they are always an anxious time for the horse owner.

Observation and a good knowledge of the vital signs of your horse is the best way in which you can learn to accurately judge when urgent veterinary treatment is needed and when you can safely treat the horse yourself, or it’s safe to wait and see if and how a condition progresses.

Use the time you spend grooming and feeding your horse to carefully observe his normal behaviour and vital signs so that you are immediately aware of any changes that might occur later. Learn the points at which you can measure the pulse and respiration of your horse.

Changes in temperature, pulse and respiration are always the first pointer to illness, abnormality or injury. Knowing what’s normal in your horse is critical to your ability to judge the relative seriousness of any condition that may arise and every horse owner should have a couple of simple tools to help them monitor vital signs — an accurate rectal thermometer and a stethoscope.

  • Normal temperature should fall into a range between 37 and 38.3 degrees celsius.
  • Normal pulse/heart rate should be 32-48 beats per minute. This can be affected by a number of factors including age, ambient temperature, humidity, recent exercise and excitement. Spend a little time establishing a record of a baseline for your horse by taking pulse rates at various times, e.g., before and after exercise. The heart/pulse rate can be checked by placing a stethoscope over his ribs, just behind the elbow. Or if you don’t have a stethoscope, take his pulse on the inside of the jaw or on the ankle.
  • Normal respiratory rate in the horse should fall within a range of 12 to 16 breaths per minute, although, again, this can vary due to humidity, exercise and excitement and other external factors. Watch the animal’s nostrils or flanks and carefully count the number of times the horse breathes out.

Equine emergencies are always a difficult and anxious time for the owner. But remember, it’s always harder for the animal, who may be in pain or severe distress. Act promptly to get advice and treatment.

Information we need to judge the extent of an injury

If you are in any way uncertain of the cause and severity of the symptoms your horse is showing, always err on the side of caution and call the hospital for advice. An experienced vet will be able to ascertain if it’s an emergency and advise you of the best way to proceed.

When calling for advice you can help the vet by having the following information ready:

  • Temperature, pulse/heart rate, and respiratory rate.
  • Your horse’s behaviour and demeanour; is he agitated, lethargic, depressed.
  • The location and severity of any injury, wound, or lameness.
  • The location of any swelling and if there is any heat present.

To avoid possibly unnecessary home visit costs for the owner, at Alpine Animal Doctors we triage all horse wounds, injuries and illnesses into three categories: Critical, Urgent, and Minor. A critical emergency requires immediate attention. Those classified as urgent still need prompt attention but may be able to be left until the following day on advice from the vet. Minor emergencies can often safely be observed and watched.

Issues requiring immediate veterinary treatment

The following details some of the situations we class as Critical Emergencies. If your horse shows any of these symptoms you should contact the hospital immediately, no matter what the time.

  • Profuse bleeding from any injury or wound which cannot be stopped, especially if the blood is bright red, which can indicate arterial bleeding.
    Injury to any vital structure (eyes, genitals, joints, etc) or wounds obviously requiring stitches.
  • Bone fractures or severe lameness on which your horse cannot bear his weight.
  • Abnormal respiration, including rapid, distressed breathing or blocked airways.
  • Signs of severe colic, including loss of appetite and reduced fecal production.
  • Staggering, lack of coordination, or marked behaviour change.
    Any injury or trauma to the eye, particularly where the horse is unwilling to open his eyelids.
  • Abnormal vital signs, including; temperature over 38.9°C; pulse above 80 beats per minute; elevated respiration while at rest.
  • Acute laminitis, seizures, heat stroke, or watery diarrhea.
  • Any mare who takes longer than 30 minutes to deliver her foal.
  • Suspected or known ingestion of a poison or toxin.
  • Puncture wounds.

Non-critical issues needing veterinary treatment

For the Urgent category of emergencies you should still contact the hospital the same day or no later than first thing the following morning. These situations do need prompt veterinary attention but can usually be safely managed with first aid measures until the vet can get there during normal hours.

  • Sudden onset of lameness on which your horse can bear his weight.
  • Superficial trauma or injury located away from the eyes, genitals, joints, e.g., relatively minor wounds and scrapes that don’t need stitches.
  • Attacks of chronic laminitis or chronic inflammatory respiratory disease when the horse has already been diagnosed and is being regularly treated/managed for these conditions.
  • Slightly elevated temperature, respiration, or heart rate.

Wait and watch

Minor category emergencies such as slight lameness, skin rashes, light discharge from the eye but without pain or vision loss, slightly reduced appetite or slight difficulty chewing when the horse is otherwise healthy, or a minor nasal discharge without any fever or heavy breathing can generally be left until you can schedule a normal appointment. Again, if in doubt, call the hospital.


E&OE. The information provided in the articles on this site is intended as a guide to assist readers to become better informed about health issues that may affect their pets and livestock. They are not a substitute for appropriate veterinary advice and treatment. They should not be used for diagnosis or treatment of any individual animal and no person should place reliance on information derived from them, where such reliance may result in loss, damage or injury. Always consult a qualified veterinarian to obtain advice.

Although Alpine Animal Doctors make every effort to ensure that the information contained in our articles is accurate and up-to-date we can accept no responsibility for errors or omissions that may occur.