Horse Side Vet Guide ®

Equine Health Resource

Horse Found Dead, Recently Seemed Healthy

Code Red - Call Your Vet Immediately, Even Outside Business Hours

Code Green - Contact Your Vet to Obtain Useful Advice & Resources

Code Red - Call Your Vet Immediately, Even Outside Business Hours

  • A post-mortem exam (necropsy) may help to identify the cause of death.
  • If you are concerned that your other horses may be in danger.

Code Green - Contact Your Vet to Obtain Useful Advice & Resources

  • You are not concerned and perceive that other horses are not at risk.

You visit your horse’s stable and are shocked to find them lying dead. You saw them 12 hours ago and they seemed fine. What should you do now?

There are relatively few conditions that have the potential to kill a seemingly healthy horse in 12 hours. In most cases, traumatic injuries that are severe enough to kill a horse quickly involve the brain, spinal cord, heart, or massive blood loss.

The most common causes of rapid death relate to the intestinal tract. Large colon volvulus (a “twisted gut”), can kill a horse in just a few hours. Intestinal rupture (stomach rupture) also causes rapid onset of shock and death.

When intestinal crises are the cause of death, they are usually accompanied by abdominal pain (colic), so signs of a struggle are evident. In most cases, the horse’s face will be swollen and bruised, especially around the eyes, from rolling and thrashing. There are often areas of hair loss or even fresh wounds that evidence a struggle.

Other likely causes of sudden death relate to the horse’s history and type. For example, older horses tend to suffer from fatal bleeding into the abdomen from tumors. Strangulating lipoma is an example of an intestinal crisis that is much more common in older horses.

I strongly recommend that your vet perform a necropsy or post-mortem exam. Without an examination, they may only be able to speculate as to the cause of death. Ideally, this is done soon after death. For suspected intestinal crises, exploration of the abdomen through a small incision may be all that is required.

For complete diagnosis, tissue samples may need to be collected and sent to a laboratory for examination. A definitive diagnosis is not always reached, even with a thorough examination of the whole horse. However, a post-mortem provides the best chance to make a diagnosis, and to acquire knowledge that could benefit your other horses in the future.

What Not To Do

Do not handle a mysteriously dead horse without wearing gloves and using great caution. Rabies is a rare but potentially transmissible disease.

Author: Doug Thal DVM Dipl. ABVP

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