Dehydration occurs when there is excessive loss of water in the horse's body. Generally due to strenuous exercise or long bouts of diarrhea, this loss of water and electrolytes -- minerals like sodium, chloride, and potassium -- is a serious emergency that can lead to kidney failure if the horse is not quickly rehydrated.
Symptoms and Types
A horse's skin loses its elasticity when its body fluid or electrolyte levels are depleted. An easy way to identify this is to pinch up a skin fold along the horse's back. A dehydrated horse's skin will stay up in a ridge, while healthy skin should spring smoothly back into place. Other signs of dehydration include:
- Dullness in the eyes
- Dry skin and mouth
- Thick and sticky saliva
- High level of protein in the blood
Excessive fluid and electrolyte loss due to diarrhea or strenuous exercise can cause dehydration, as does an abnormally high body temperature (hyperthermia) or fever. Some other causes of dehydration include:
- Long distance riding/racing
- Athletic events
- Trail riding
- Severe burns
- Endotoxemia (disease which causes renal failure)
- Colitis-X (disease which causes watery diarrhea and hypovolemic shock)
- Anaphylactic shock (shock triggered by an allergic reaction)
Your veterinarian will run various blood tests to determine if the horse is dehydrated. Such tests will identify a reduction in the water content of the horse's tissue cells by examining the amount of protein in the blood and the blood volume itself. Examining the animal's urine will also help in the diagnosis and may reveal secondary problems which have occurred in the kidneys.
Administering fluids and electrolyte solutions is vital in treating and stabilizing horses suffering from dehydration. However, seek the advice of your veterinarian, as these dosages require medical expertise -- excess administration of fluids can lead to a condition called water intoxication.
Generally, a veterinarian will administer electrolyte solution by mouth and in severe cases, fluids injected intravenously into the horse may be necessary. The method that is chosen depends on the attitude, temperament, and health of the dehydrated animal. After the electrolyte balance is brought back into the “safe zone,” any other issues that may have caused the dehydration can be treated.
Water is the life force of all living things and if horses are pushed to the point of exhaustion without an opportunity to rehydrate, it could be detrimental to the horse's health, even causing death. Therefore, following simple management practices like always providing adequate fresh, clean water to your horses could prevent dehydration.