Equine dehydration is more common in the summer, but it can happen at other times of the year, too. Intense activity in hot, humid weather is the most common cause, but an inactive horse in a hot, poorly ventilated stall or without access to sufficient water (think frozen water buckets!) can become dehydrated, too.
There are several ways to tell if a horse is dehydrated:
1. The pinch test: Pull out a pinch of skin on your horse’s neck or shoulder. Notice how quickly it springs back. If it springs right back into place, he’s not very dehydrated. If he is moderately dehydrated, the skin will stay elevated a few seconds after you pull it out. The more dehydrated your horse is, the longer the skin will stay elevated.
2. Check his gums and mucous membranes inside the nose and mouth. Dry, red mucous membranes in the nose and mouth are a sign of dehydration. Also look for dark red gums.
3. Check your horse’s eyes. Are they dull and glazed? Are the eyelids wrinkled?
4. Perform a capillary refill test: Press your finger into your horse’s gum just above his front teeth. The spot will turn white. Normal color should return within one to four seconds. In a stressed and dehydrated horse, the spot will stay pale and bloodless longer. The more dehydrated the horse, the slower the capillary refill time.
5. Other signs include thick, lathered sweat, shallow panting and an increased temperature (over 102F) that doesn’t decrease after exertion. Take your horse’s temperature safely with these tips.
If you suspect that your horse is dehydrated, take the following steps.
1. If dehydration is heat related, move the horse into the shade. Cool him with a fan if possible.
2. Moderate dehydration can be reversed by allowing your horse unlimited access to water and electrolyte supplementation.
3. Severe and dangerous dehydration can best be reversed by giving electrolyte fluid intravenously. Contact your vet if your horse is severely dehydrated.
Complications of severe equine dehydration can include exertional tying up, impaction colic and thumps, all of which require immediate veterinary attention. Keep your horse in good shape and pay attention to the signs and symptoms of equine dehydration, no matter what the season.