We all hope our horses never get sick enough to need to stay in the hospital… but sometimes horses require intensive care to survive potentially fatal illness.
This is the story of Tucker, a palomino gelding pony, who was owned by a very loving twelve-year-old boy. Tucker lived a great life at his stable in northeastern Wisconsin. He shared a paddock with a couple of good horse pals, and loved to jump and compete at shows with his owner. Unfortunately, one cold February day, Tucker became depressed and showed signs of illness. Tucker would not eat his hay or grain. His gums were pale and dry, his heart rate was elevated, and he developed diarrhea.
Tucker’s owners and referring veterinarian knew that he was very sick and needed to be in a hospital where he could be treated and constantly monitored. I was on duty when the call came to Great Lakes Equine Wellness Center. I remember when Tucker arrived that he walked very slowly and his eyes had no sparkle. He was showing signs of being in endotoxic shock-which means that his body was having a reaction to a certain component of bacteria. After examining Tucker thoroughly, we immediately we put an intravenous catheter into Tucker’s jugular vein and began to rehydrate him with fluids. To figure out why Tucker was endotoxic we ran bloodwork, sampled his abdominal fluid and urine, ultrasounded his abdomen, passed a nasogastric tube, and performed a rectal examination. The laboratory tests revealed that Tucker was severely dehydrated, and had electrolyte disturbances. We continued to run fluids into Tucker’s vein…it takes a lot of fluid to rehyrate a horse! (When horses are not feeling well, they sometimes will not drink water on their own.)
Tucker had to stay in the isolation barn at Great Lakes Equine due to his diarrhea. Sometimes diarrhea in horses is caused by contagious pathogens such as Salmonella bacteria, so we had to keep Tucker separate from other horses to be safe. We submitted samples of Tucker’s manure to be tested for Salmonella, and his paddock mates were tested as well.
Overnight, Tucker spiked a fever and his blood work showed that he had very low white blood cells. His diarrhea became worse, and we needed to act fast to keep Tucker alive. In order to keep his head and limbs from swelling with fluid, Tucker needed large volumes of plasma and hetastarch (products that help keep the fluid in Tuckers blood vessels because he had lost most of his natural proteins throuh diarrhea). He was given antibiotics, anti-inflammatory medicine, anti-diarrheal products, and probiotics. His feet were iced and padded with Styrofoam to prevent laminitis, which can occur secondary to diarrhea and endotoxemia in the horse. Tucker was feeling much too sick to eat and he was losing weight.
Over the next six days, Tucker was visited often by his owners and he continued to receive intensive treatments for his condition. Fortunately, things started to turn around for Tucker. He and his paddock mates tested negative for salmonella, and he did not develop laminitis. He began to have more solid manure and even nibble on hay and grass! We were overjoyed to see him feeling better. After one week in the hospital, Tucker was cleared to go home on some medication. He continued to do well and made a full recovery. Tucker is now back to being a horse and doing what he loves.