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What is Dehydration?

The definition of dehydration is when body tissue does not have enough water. This can be the result of not enough water coming in or too much going out. On average horses drink anywhere from 5 to 15 gallons of water in a day. It is important to ensure they have access to clean and continuous water throughout their day. Your horse can lose up to 5% of his body weight in fluids before showing any actual signs of dehydration. This makes it very important to always keep an eye on him when he is exercising, running, and riding to make sure he has adequate water intake.

Once a horse loses up to 15% of his fluids, it can become deadly. Horses lose water throughout the day via urination, bowel movements, and sweating.

Dehydration in horses is simply when they do not have enough water to support the functions of the body. This condition can be very dangerous if left untreated.

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Symptoms of Dehydration in Horses

Symptoms may vary in each case, however below are some things to be aware of in your horse if he is experiencing dehydration.

  • Dull – Your normally lively and enthusiastic horse may appear to be dull or depressed 
  • Lethargic – Your horse may appear to be tired or have difficulty concentrating/focusing on the task at hand 
  • Skin tenting – If your horse’s skin when pulled at the neck stays in the “tent” position without quickly returning to normal, this could be a sign of dehydration 
  • Sweating – This may be excessive or very limited for the environment he is in 
  • Mucous membranes – They may appear to be red and dry inside his nose and mouth and his gums may be dry
  • Eyes – Typically a horse’s eyes are moist, however when he is becoming dehydrated they begin to dry out as well 
  • Appetite – He may lose his appetite when he is dehydrated or only be interested in grass as it is made up of mostly water

Causes of Dehydration in Horses

The causes of dehydration can be lack of water intake, loss of water too quickly or excessive sweating. 

Water intake

  • Your horse may not be drinking enough water to meet his needs
  • There may not be a reliable source of water for your horse, therefore he does not have enough water to drink throughout the day

Water output

  • Your horse may be sweating out more water than he has in his body to sustain him
  • Your horse may be sweating excessively due to the high temperatures or demanding physical exertion he is under

Diagnosis of Dehydration in Horses

If you suspect your horse is dehydrated, it is important to seek out medical attention for him immediately. The skin tent test can be used to get a better idea of whether he is dehydrated, however, it is not definitive in nature. It may be necessary to have him seen by the veterinarian to ensure he is safe due to dehydration escalating relatively quickly without treatment. 

There is no testing that is done necessarily for dehydration, rather it is by symptoms your horse is experiencing. The veterinarian may choose to do blood tests to rule out an underlying illness that may be causing the dehydration. Blood work can also give an indication as to how the organs are functioning. Identifying whether your horse had a water source available to him and sharing this with the veterinarian is important along with sharing all symptoms you have noticed in his behavior.

Treatment of Dehydration in Horses

If you feel your horse may be dehydrated, the first step is to offer him clean and fresh water. Allowing him to drink water at 10 minute intervals until he has had his fill is a good starting point. If he is not satiated from drinking water and becoming lethargic or not eating, treatment by other means may be necessary. IV fluid is another method of rehydrating your horse and should be done by a veterinarian. It will be important to treat his dehydration because left untreated, it can cause kidney damage and more.

Recovery of Dehydration in Horses

Follow up appointments will only be necessary as directed by your veterinarian. However, in the event your horse does not respond to your treatment at home, a follow up to the veterinarian may be needed. The best method to combat dehydration is by not allowing it to happen to begin with. 

Making sure your horse always has access to clean and plentiful water is important. It is also important to build your horse up to the amount of exercise and strenuous work you will expect of him, keeping him hydrated along the way.

It will also be beneficial to continuously monitor your horse for the signs of dehydration before it gets bad enough to cause damage. You can also wet your horse on particularly hot or humid days to keep him cool as well. Providing your horse with electrolytes will also be important to keep him properly hydrated. 

If treated quickly, your horse will be back to his normal self relatively quickly. However, if left untreated and the dehydration gets bad enough, your horse may take some time to recuperate and your veterinarian will be able to give you an idea of how long that could take.