Tech Rescue: Accidental Hypothermia Calls in Horses

With the increased numbers of horses in urban and suburban areas, it is now common for fire-rescue departments across the country to respond to calls involving horses trapped in mud, fallen through surface ice or trapped in swimming pools. During most...


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  1. As soon as you are dispatched to this type of call, find out whether a large-animal veterinarian has been contacted and is responding.
  2. Use normal protocol upon arriving at the scene, including size-up and implementing the Incident Command System.
  3. It is safe to assume the horse is already hypothermic and dehydrated. In most cases, the horse has been immersed for a few hours before it is discovered and you are called.
  4. If a veterinarian is on scene, warm IV fluids (life support) should be started.
  5. Perform the rescue using appropriate technical large-animal-rescue techniques.
  6. Handle the horse as gently as possible.
  7. If the horse can walk, bring him to a small enclosed building out of the weather and warm the building with a forced-air heater.
  8. If the horse is lying down (recumbent), place him on a rescue glide or plywood sheet and bring him indoors. Place insulating material (wood shavings, straw, blankets, cardboard) between the horse and the floor.
  9. Blankets and towels are OK, but DO NOT rub.
  10. Warm packs on the neck against the jugular veins may help restore core temperature.
  11. Check rectal temperature periodically.
  12. Even a horse that looks “OK” should be taken to a veterinary facility for follow-up.

 

Hypothermia And Death

Under field conditions, a hypothermic horse should not be declared dead unless all efforts to restore core temperature have failed. Core temperature is not a reliable indicator of survival as demonstrated by many cases of humans with profound hypothermia. The only definite criterion of death is failure to respond to core rewarming. The following quote is well known in human hypothermia resuscitation: “A patient is not dead until he is warm and dead.” A human with a core temperature of 9° C (48.2° F) recovered after one hour without cardiac activity or respiration.

The bottom line: Hypothermia in a horse is a serious condition that must be managed in a timely and appropriate manner.