Horse Side Vet Guide ®

Equine Health Resource

Swelling of Multiple Lower Limbs or Legs

Code Orange - Call Your Vet at Their First Available Office Hours

Code Yellow - Contact Your Vet at Your Convenience for an Appointment

Code Orange - Call Your Vet at Their First Available Office Hours

  • If the results of the Whole Horse Exam (WHE) in the resting horse indicate fever (Temp>101F/38.3C), or heart rate greater than 48 BPM.
  • If the lameness is mild.
  • If the horse seems stiff, or digital pulse is present.

Code Yellow - Contact Your Vet at Your Convenience for an Appointment

  • If you consider this a chronic and relatively mild problem that is not changing rapidly.
  • Even if the horse does not appear to be lame to you.
  • If the results of the Whole Horse Exam (WHE) suggest the horse is otherwise normal.

Being the lowest parts of the horse’s body, the lower limbs often are the anatomic region that show fluid that has escaped from the blood vessels into the connective tissues (called edema) from any cause. This edema pools here simply as a result of gravity.

Many different conditions result in swelling of multiple limbs. Trauma is a common cause of damaged blood vessels and swelling in a single lower limb. Swelling of multiple limbs can occur because of trauma to multiple limbs, but this is uncommon. But trauma and inflammation can occur high on a limb or even on the body and the resulting edema can “drain” down to the lower limbs.

There are many other reasons for swelling of multiple lower limbs. If there is backup of the blood return from the legs (congestive heart failure), the limbs swell. If there is loss of albumin (blood protein) and the levels become low (colitis), the limbs swell. If vessels are injured (vasculitis from viral or allergic causes for instance), the limbs swell. Diseases that cause these problems are associated with multiple leg swelling, and the list of possible causes is very long.

Stocking-up (a/k/a stagnation edema) commonly occurs in stabled horses or horses placed in a stall after exercise. It is caused by reduced lymph circulation with lack of normal movement. It is commonly more obvious in the hind limbs.

A small amount of edema in the lower limbs of a stalled horse is usually not a cause for concern. However, it may be impossible for you to distinguish between “normal” stocking up and edema from other causes, indicating a problem.

WHAT TO DO

When you notice increased swelling of your horse’s lower limbs, especially if it exceeds what you may consider to be “normal” stocking-up, assess your horse’s general health using the Whole Horse Exam (WHE), paying particular attention to the rectal temperature, heart rate, the feet (digital pulse and heat), and any lameness visible at the walk. Look carefully up and down the limbs, looking and feeling for wounds, irritated skin, or other abnormalities. Press gently on the swollen areas. Do they seem to hurt? Is there heat or does the skin seem moist or inflamed?

If you are convinced this is simply stocking-up, exercise your horse regularly (or turn them out 24/7) and evaluate the amount of edema before and afterwards. If this problem seems serious to you or worsens, does not go away after exercise, is worse in one limb than another, or occurs in conjunction with lameness or any other problems, call your vet to discuss your findings and concerns.

WHAT YOUR VET DOES

Your vet will perform a physical exam, carefully assess the limbs, and recommend additional diagnostics to determine the cause of the swelling.

Identify or Rule-Out Possible CausesDIAGNOSES

Author: Doug Thal DVM Dipl. ABVP

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