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How (and when) to Take a Horse’s Temperature

by Michelle Holtmeyer
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There’s nothing more guaranteed to make horse owners roll their eyes in sympathy than talking about the horse’s capacity to injure itself or be unexpectedly out of sorts. Injuries can be sudden and dramatic, whether as a result of rough play-fighting in the field or getting cast in the stable. It’s a good idea to master some first aid techniques for treating both horse and rider. In this article, we’ll give you the know-how on one of the fundamentals. (Pun intended.) That is, how to take a horse’s temperature.

Why do I have to take my horse’s temperature?

Measuring the temperature of a horse is not one of the most popular tasks in horse care. It’s an important one, though, since temperature reveals a lot about a horse’s health.

Fever, indicated by elevated temperature, is often the first indication of infection or inflammation in the horse’s body. Fever lets us know that the horse’s metabolic rate has been raised because fever results from that activity. It’s the sign that the horse’s body is trying to deal with a threat of some kind. As in humans, a high temperature can pass quickly once the illness has been overcome. However, if the temperature reaches 40.5 ° C or more, the enzymes and proteins in the body can be damaged. It’s a bit like cooking an egg: the egg white solidifies. This is particularly dangerous for the brain, which can be damaged by oedema (swelling).

Too low a temperature is a warning that the horse’s metabolism or circulation isn’t working properly. Keep an eye on anything below 37 ° C, and if it drops below 36.5 ° C you should consult a veterinarian.

When should I check the temperature?

Both high and low temperatures can indicate disease. A few indications of when to take the horse’s temperature are listed here:

  • The horse is unusually calm, appears dull and / or is unwilling to move
  • The horse is not eating and / or drinking properly
  • There are other signs of a cold, flu or infection (e.g. nasal discharge, cough or swollen lymph nodes)
  • The horse is showing signs of colic
  • There is a possible injury or the horse is post-operative
  • If other horses in the herd have an infection
  • In cases of heatstroke or hypothermia

If you can tick any of these boxes, take your horse’s temperature!

How do I take the horse’s temperature?

When measuring fever in horses, the thermometer is always placed in the horse’s rectum. Top tip: practise this before you have an emergency! Use a regular clinical digital thermometer and lubricant. (Some are marketed as veterinary thermometers.) They are readily available at pharmacies and online. Don’t use a traditional glass one with mercury though – there’s too great a risk of it breaking, and mercury is toxic.

Stand at the side of the horse, not behind it, for safety reasons! It’s much easier if you have a friend to help you do this task, particularly if the horse is restless. Follow the instructions and note down your reading.

A tip: to make sure the clinical thermometer does not disappear into the horse or get lost afterwards, simply attach a piece of cord or good old fashioned baler twine to the thermometer with adhesive tape. You can fasten a stick or pencil to the other end.

The normal temperature of a horse

The adult horse’s temperature is usually between 37.2 ° C and 38.4 ° C. That’s a bit higher than a human’s. Factors such as the outside temperature or whether the horse has exercised recently play a part, as does its general constitution.

Possible causes of fever & low temperature in the horse

As mentioned previously, both a raised temperature due to fever and a low temperature can be indicators of some diseases.

Fever can result from:

  • Infectious diseases, such as glanders, herpes, influenza or pneumonia
  • Inflammation in the body, such as laminitis, cellulitis or an abscess
  • Poisoning
  • Heatstroke

Low temperature may indicate:

  • Chill
  • Shock
  • High blood loss
  • A drop due to freezing weather or lying on a cold surface
  • Metabolic disorders or malnourishment

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