What is Hypothermia?
Always consult your veterinarian when you believe that your horse is suffering from hypothermia. Careful evaluation will be required to ensure that any arrhythmia or ventricular fibrillation that may occur is properly handled.
Hypothermia is a condition that can occur in horses that are exposed to hypothermic conditions. This can include getting trapped out in the elements or falling into a pond or mud hole. Horses suffering from hypothermia should be rewarmed very carefully to avoid post rescue collapse or rewarming shock. With improper handling, a horse might die when facing hypothermia. There are specific rewarming processes that should be implemented to ensure that your horse does not suffer any adverse effects.
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Symptoms of Hypothermia in Horses
During cold weather it is essential that you monitor your horse closely for any signs of distress. Even horses that have a thick, shaggy coat can become hypothermic. If you notice any of these symptoms, contact your veterinarian for a full assessment and bring your horse into the barn, out of the elements.
- Shivering, starting in the extremities
- Tachycardia or bradycardia
- Respiratory dysfunction
- Cold diuresis peripheral
- Urine that is a color similar to red wine
- Arrhythmia and/or ventricular fibrillation
- Pneumonia sepsis
- Low core body temperature
Hypothermia is categorized into three types for any animal or human suffering from the condition.
- Acute hypothermia, also known as immersion hypothermia, is caused by a sudden exposure to the cold; this is very common in horses that get stuck in cold water, such as lakes and ponds, and mud holes
- Exhaustion hypothermia is caused when your horse is exposed to the cold for an extended period of time in conjunction with exhaustion and a lack of food
- Chronic hypothermia mainly affects elderly horses. The normal core body temperature for an adult horse is 99.5-100.4 degrees Fahrenheit; an adult horse with a core body temperature below 99.5 degrees Fahrenheit is considered to be hypothermic and most elderly horses are unable to maintain their normal core body temperature when out in the cold elements
Causes of Hypothermia in Horses
Hypothermia in horses will occur when horses are exposed to very cold temperatures. Their hypothalamus will send signals throughout the body to activate their warming mechanisms including shivering, beginning in the extremities. As hypothermia begins to set in, the core body temperature begins to drop. The warming mechanisms do not help raise the core body temperature and become overwhelmed, and then organ dysfunction begins to set in.
Diagnosis of Hypothermia in Horses
If you suspect that your horse is suffering from hypothermia contact your veterinarian immediately. If you are unsure of how to rewarm your horse properly to avoid further harm and possible death, do not try to rewarm your horse until your veterinarian arrives and fully assesses the situation.
Once your veterinarian arrives, they will do a physical examination of your horse including taking their core body temperature. Hypothermia will be diagnosed based on your horse’s core body temperature and the clinical symptoms that are present. If your horse’s core body temperature is below 99.5 degrees Fahrenheit, your horse will be diagnosed as hypothermic.
Treatment of Hypothermia in Horses
Do not attempt to rewarm your horse without first consulting your veterinarian. Your veterinarian will give detailed instructions on treating your horse for hypothermia. Rewarming your horse too quickly can cause organ failure and even death. Treatments may include:
Passive External Rewarming
This treatment is only effective in mild cases of hypothermia where your horse is still able to produce heat by shivering. Your horse will be wrapped in a blanket and their body sheltered with a tarp to stop further cooling and prevent more heat loss.
Active External Rewarming
This treatment will use warm water bottles, hot water bottles, forced warm air, heating pads, and/or heat lamps. In some cases, this method may cause increased circulation to the extremities. This will pull heat away from the core and be counterproductive. Active external rewarming can cause burns to your horse if not applied correctly or left on too long.
Active Internal Rewarming
In many cases, active internal rewarming is used in conjunction with one of the external rewarming methods. This treatment involves administering warm fluids intravenously and also a body cavity lavage.
During any of these rewarming treatments, your horse’s organ function should be assessed regularly. Your horse should also be placed on intravenous fluids to replace any fluid loss. Oxygen support may also be necessary as well as NSAIDs and antibiotics to prevent further damage.
Recovery of Hypothermia in Horses
Horses that suffer from milder cases of hypothermia will most likely have a full recovery. Those horses that have a more severe case of hypothermia or are not rewarmed properly have a smaller chance of making a full recovery.
Be sure to follow your veterinarian’s treatment plan as directed to ensure that your horse has the best chance of making a full recovery. Even if your horse survives the elements, there is still the risk of post-rescue collapse or rewarming shock. If you have any questions regarding your horse’s care, direct them to your attending veterinarian.