Horse Side Vet Guide ®

Equine Health Resource

Jugular Vein or Pulse Seems Over-Full in the Neck

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    The jugular vein carries blood from a horse’s head back to its heart. It is located within the jugular groove, on the lower side of the horse’s neck. In a normal horse, the jugular vein is a collapsed “balloon” – it is not filled with blood visibly and should not visibly pulsate.

    You might notice subtle visible pulsation in the very lowest part of the jugular groove where the neck joins the shoulder. Other than this, the jugular vein should not be obvious and does not protrude unless blood flow is held off manually. You will notice, in a normal horse, that the vein fills with blood when the horse lowers its head below the level of it’s heart.

    If the jugular vein is swollen or the pulse in it is visible through the skin, it can indicate heart failure or other potentially serious condition. A firm, ropy swelling of the vein could indicates clotting (thrombosis) of the vein, usually resulting from improperly administered IV injection(s), or inflammation following IV catheterization.


    Press on the enlarged jugular vein to assess whether it is firm or soft and fluidy feeling. Notice whether the vein fills up above your hand. Assess your horse’s general health using the Whole Horse Exam (WHE), paying particular attention to heart rate and sounds, pulse, gum color and capillary refill time. Lift your horse’s head above heart level to see if the swelling or pulse goes away. Monitor your horse, looking for other signs of illness. Contact your vet to discuss your findings and concerns.


    Your vet determines the cause for the abnormal appearing area through a careful history and physical exam. In some cases, ultrasound can be very helpful for visualizing the jugular vein.

    Author: Doug Thal DVM Dipl. ABVP


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