Taking Care of Horses After the Storm
Horse care steps to take in the immediate aftermath of flood, fire, or wind
Tornadoes, hurricanes, wildfires, floods, mudslides, blizzards … every region is going to have its share of natural disasters. And despite thorough planning and preparation, horse owners can still find themselves in the midst of serious weather-related emergencies with their horses.
Hence, it’s crucial to know the risks for various weather events in your area and how to handle them before they strike, especially if you’re left with an injured horse and few veterinary resources.
And while many disaster plans call for evacuation, sometimes that just isn’t an option.
“You can imagine the logistics of loading up a couple hundred head of cattle to take them out of some kind of situation,” says Bill Moyer, DVM, professor emeritus and former head of the Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences at Texas A&M University, in College Station. He served on A&M’s Veterinary Emergency Team, which helps animals and owners in times of disaster.
In these instances owners must put their “shelter-in-place” plans in action, monitoring and triaging horses and other animals during and after an emergency.
Let’s hear from three practitioners familiar with disaster situations about how to best care for your horses in their wake.
Inspecting the Horse
Above all else, Rebecca McConnico, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVIM, professor of agricultural sciences at Louisiana Tech University, in Ruston, reminds us that human life and safety come first—then the health of animals, then concern for property. McConnico was the founding director of the Louisiana State University (LSU) School of Veterinary Medicine’s Veterinary Disaster Response and Training Program.
If you’ve just weathered a natural disaster, she recommends observing horses closely for several days. Even if they seem fine initially, these fight-or-flight animals have just experienced an adrenaline spike. Stress can also affect gut motility, increasing these horses’ risk of colic.
When examining your horse after a disaster:
- Check vital signs—temperature (twice a day), respiration, heart rate, etc.—and gums, which are normally pale pink and moist. Bright pink gums might point to a systemic response to endotoxin or infection in the bloodstream, while maroon-purple gums suggest cardiovascular and/or endotoxemic shock and lack of oxygenation to tissues, says McConnico;
- Inspect the horse’s body for puncture wounds, lacerations, scrapes, and skin problems such as bacterial infections;
- Walk the horse to check for lameness, and feel the legs for heat or swelling;
- Check the eyes for injury or debris;
- Pick out hooves and look for foreign objects or injury;
- Check for labored breathing, especially after a fire;
- Observe the horse’s behavior for signs of distress, such as reluctance to move, lethargy, low head carriage, recumbency (lying down), pawing, rolling, flank-watching, incoordination, muscle-twitching, tremors, etc. McConnico reminds owners that because horses are prey animals, they might try to hide signs of physical illness;
- Monitor the horse’s feed and water intake; and
- Monitor bowel movements for signs of colic or diarrhea.
While these steps are crucial after any disaster, now we’ll address horse health needs specific to certain scenarios.
While they are very different weather phenomena, hurricanes and tornadoes can present similar problems for horse owners.
Tornadoes can cause total destruction in an instant. Take the 2.6-mile-wide F5 tornado with wind speeds up to 295 mph that ripped through Moore, Oklahoma, in 2013. It destroyed everything in its path during its 40-minute journey and claimed many human and animal lives, including 100 horses.
By nature tornadoes are unpredictable, making it impractical to evacuate. With hurricanes, however, Moyer always recommends evacuating. But, if that’s not possible, you must decide whether it’s best to leave your horses outside to brave the elements or bring them into shelter. In doing so, collectively consider the following:
- The hurricane category (wind speed);
- How sturdy the barn is and whether it can withstand predicted wind speeds;
- If your location will sustain a direct or an indirect hit;
- How fast the hurricane is moving and how long it should take to pass;
- If the barn or pastures are on high or low ground, in case of flooding; and
- The location of hazards such as power lines.
“During Hurricane Katrina and then following that, Hurricane Rita, a lot of the horses actually died because … they were in the barn and couldn’t get out,” when it flooded, says Rustin Moore, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVS, dean of The Ohio State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, in Columbus. Moore led equine rescue efforts in the aftermath of these storms when he was director of the LSU Equine Health Studies Program. “The animals that could get out of their stalls were typically ponies and Miniature Horses, and they had Dutch doors, so when the water rose, they floated out over the top, whereas a big horse wouldn’t fit. In Hurricane Rita a lot of horses were out, and some of those got tangled up in barbed wire and other things and drowned or died of other causes.”
If horses are left in a barn on higher ground, they need to have plenty of hay and water in case impassable roads prevent owners or animal responders from getting to them, he says.
Heat and humidity can remain elevated post-hurricane, which makes hydration important. If a horse develops hyperthermia, which is characterized by a rectal temperature above 102-105°F, he must be hosed continuously with cool water to bring his temperature down, says Moyer. A veterinarian, if available, might give intravenous (IV) fluids. Moore also suggests giving these horses an alcohol bath, placing them under fans, and putting priority on cooling their heads down to reduce the risk of brain damage.
Due to flying debris during high-wind situations, surviving horses might be left with puncture wounds to their bodies or eyes. McConnico recommends bathing each horse very carefully after the worst has passed to look for wounds. In addition, rinse the eyes with saline or low-pressure water to help clear debris, which can damage the cornea easily.
Hoof puncture wounds are emergencies that demand immediate veterinary or farrier attention. It’s best to leave foreign objects in place so the vet can see what foot structures might be affected before taking further action, says Moore. If the object is protruding so far that bearing weight could drive it in further, then he suggests clipping it down while waiting for help, if possible. However, don’t clip it so short that the veterinarian can’t pull it out.
If help won’t be available in a timely manner, Moyer recommends pulling the object out with a pair of pliers. Next, soak a diaper in warm water and Epsom salts, wrap it around the bottom of the hoof, and secure and cover it with duct tape to create a high-osmotic-grade solution that draws out bacteria and allows the hoof to drain. “You’d be surprised how beautiful something like that will look the following morning,” says Moyer. “It’s a great way to clean out puncture wounds.”
The American Association of Equine Practitioners’ vaccination guidelines recommend revaccinating horses that have sustained wounds or need surgery with tetanus toxoid immediately if they haven’t had a booster in more than six months. Even contamination of superficial wounds can cause tetanus, which can be fatal.
After an emergency, keep your horses away from hazards such as broken fencing, barbed wire, building parts, and downed power lines, especially if they are still live. She suggests people have a backup holding pen or portable fencing.
Once fences are repaired, Moyer recommends farm owners inspect all pastures and paddocks for stray debris before turning horses back out, adding that a metal detector or large magnet can be useful for this task.
Moyer calls standing water a bacterial sewer, especially if it contains sewage overflow or chemicals from nearby manufacturing facilities.
Horses that develop diarrhea or colic after possibly ingesting floodwaters might need veterinarian-administered mineral oil or activated charcoal via nasogastric intubation (stomach tube), says Moore.
Decontaminate horses that have been exposed to floodwaters as soon as possible, says McConnico. Simply bathe the horse using mild soap and a disinfectant and rinse him off well, she says. This helps remove caustic materials, bacteria, fungi, etc. and allows you to inspect for any injuries, including to the feet.
“In a flood situation, treat those little scrapes like they are a major problem,” says Moyer. “They are an avenue for bacteria to enter the horse. Just a little scratch can all of a sudden become a (Staphylococcus) infection.”
Clean wounds with povidone-iodine or antiseptic solution, and rebandage them with clean waterproof bandages daily. Monitor these horses for signs of sepsis, such as elevated respiratory rate, fever, abnormal mucous membranes, and changes in white blood cell counts.
“If they were in water for a very long time, they can get some maceration (softening) of the skin or issues just related to the water,” says Moore, “especially if there was any contamination of the water that could potentially cause (chemical) burns.”
McConnico adds that fungal diseases can also crop up after two to six weeks.
Wildfires cause their share of devastation each year in many states. A video of racehorses fleeing from fire at the San Luis Rey Downs Training Center, in Bonsall, California, circulated online this past December. Dozens of horses lost their lives there while others, along with people, were seriously injured. Many other equine facilities lost everything, including horses, in last years’ California wildfires.
Moyer says where he lives in Montana, ranchers remove fencing when there’s fire threat so horses and cattle can flee as needed.
If a horse gets burned, Moyer says there isn’t much an owner can do until a veterinarian arrives, particularly if the burn is in an area that can’t be bandaged. After a few days, when burned tissue over large areas of the body starts to die, kidneys can be overwhelmed with the byproducts, leading to kidney damage, he says. If the horse’s burns are just on the legs, however, he recommends cleaning them with a gentle soap and wrapping with clean bandaging.
McConnico says horses post-fire are more at risk of colic and cardiovascular and toxic shock and require immediate critical care and possibly IV fluids. But if the horse is responding to handlers normally and seems stable, she stresses the importance of giving him free-choice water and hay, which can can help calm him and keep his gut functioning.
Moore warns that labored breathing, coughing, and nasal discharge could indicate you’re dealing with complications from smoke inhalation. This can be difficult to treat, depending on its severity. He suggests calling a veterinarian immediately if your horse has been involved in a barn fire or has been in proximity to wildfires; even if the horse doesn’t have burns, his airways need to be assessed.
Blizzards and Ice
While frostbite isn’t common, horses that are out in the elements during frigid weather can develop it. Ears and foal limbs and feet are most vulnerable.
If a horse falls through ice, Moore says he might not have much chance of survival unless he’s kept calm. “The horse could very well struggle until it’s exhausted and then drown,” he says.
Don’t go out on the ice yourself in these situations. If the horse is near the edge of the water body, it might be possible to break the ice so he can escape. If the situation is too unsafe for one person to handle, call 911, the fire department, or your local Community Animal Response Team (CART) for help. Knowing whom to call in your area can save time and should be part of a farm’s disaster planning.
If a horse is hypothermic, which means he has a body temperature below 98.6°F and is in danger of organ failure, bring him under shelter and cover him in blankets. Your veterinarian might need to administer IV fluids.
Getting Help in the Aftermath
“In most disasters, it is going to take every bit of 48 hours to get resources,” says Moyer. “In situations I’ve been in, cellphones are worthless because the towers are down or the power is gone.”
In addition, if roads are closed or traffic is heavy, it might not be possible to get in or out. For this reason Moyer recommends farms always have at least a week’s worth of food and water for all animals.
If a horse has been stranded without food or water, then rehydration is your priority. To prevent a distended or ruptured gut due to overconsumption, Moore advises offering these horses only 2 to 3 gallons of water every one to two hours until they’re rehydrated. A veterinarian might administer IV fluids in some cases.
A Lack of Veterinary Care
In major disasters veterinarians’ time is often stretched thin, and your regular vet might not be able to get to your facility quickly. Part of your disaster plan should be knowing alternative options for veterinary care or phone numbers for large animal rescues in the area.
In addition—if cellphone towers are working—owners can take photos or videos of a horse’s condition and send them to the veterinarian, who can offer advice if he or she can’t get to the facility.
If a veterinarian can’t come to you, you might be able to travel to a clinic, university veterinary hospital, or evacuation facility where veterinary care is available.
“It’s really, really important to have a neighborhood network and practice (for emergencies) with your community,” says McConnico. This network could include neighboring farms, other knowledgeable horse people, the local agriculture extension agent, or your local CART or Disaster Animal Response Team (DART).
How you handle an emergency depends on how well you’ve planned beforehand and whether you’ve armed yourself with the knowledge to treat common injuries and health conditions. Attend clinics and seminars on disaster planning and equine first aid. And connect with others in your area to develop a community plan. This is crucial in the event of a disaster and could mean the difference between devastation and an uneventful recovery.
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