Horses Suffer in Silence

People cry, dogs howl and even the brave cats sometimes scream. But the horse remains silent. However, there are ways to recognize when the steed is in pain in order to be able to relieve it in good time.

What exactly is pain? The international pain society has the following definition: “Pain is an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience that is linked to actual or potential tissue damage or is described in terms of such damage.” Similar to cold, smell, or touch, humans and animals also perceive pain. These signal that something is wrong. If this warning signal lights up permanently, the pain can develop into an independent disease, chronic pain.

Pain should therefore warn, protect against greater damage and keep the patient calm so that the illness or injury is not aggravated. If the horse has bad memories of the vet, for example, the pain is mixed with fear and stress. This not only mobilizes endogenous hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, which help to cope with stress but also endorphins, which relieve it. 

Pain is subjective

To draw attention to themselves and their pain, people usually start to whine or cry. Not so horses. If the pain is very severe, they may sometimes groan, groan or grind their teeth, but mostly they suffer in silence. In the wild, that’s a smart move. At least some experts suspect that the rather silent suffering is part of the survival strategy of a flight animal. If injured, perhaps even immobilized, horses made painful noises in the wild, they would be easy prey. Above all, lameness should be concealed. Based on the domesticated conditions, however, this behavior is not expedient. This makes it difficult to cure something that you know nothing about. 

« If a horse has musculoskeletal pain, it will instinctively move less or put less stress on the affected limb. »- Regula Bettschart-Wolfensberger
Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Zurich

After all, there are other ways to communicate. “If a horse’s musculoskeletal system hurts, it will instinctively move less or put less strain on the affected limb,” says Regula Bettschart-Wolfensberger, head of the anesthesiology department at the University of Zurich’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine. On the other hand, gestures such as tail flicking, rolling, scratching, or sudden restlessness are more likely to indicate abdominal pain. Tension, twitching, cramps, or shaking of the head are also part of it. 

However, pain is perceived differently from animal to animal and from person to person. While one horse hobbles at the slightest scratch on its leg, its fellow might still be walking unimpressed across the pasture with a flesh wound. There is only one thing left for the horse owner: to observe closely and learn to assess his horse. The facial expressions of the animal offer help. “The facial expressions when there is pain change in a very similar way to that of a person in pain,” explains the veterinarian. The ears lie back slightly, the facial muscles are tense, the eyelids are narrowed. If you look closely, you will discover a few signs (see fold-out box).

This is how you can tell if the horse is in pain

  • Forehead
    The upper part of the eye is tense so that the bone structure is more visible here. 
  • Ears
    This point stiffly backward.
  • Eyes
    The eyelid gap is narrowed, i.e. the eyes are partially or even completely closed. The gaze is tense. 
  • Chewing muscles
    The lower jaw is tense, its muscles clearly visible. 
  • Mouth
    appears square, the lips are pressed together.
  • Nostrils
    The nostrils are dilated and tense. Seen from the side, the nose appears flattered and the lips longer. 

It’s the intensity that counts

Once you’ve finally found what you’re looking for, the doctor usually comes. However, before he starts therapy, he not only has to find and eliminate the root of all evil but also assess the intensity of the pain. There are various scales for this, such as the Bussières pain scale or that of the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP). Betschart-Wolfensberger and her team also use such instruments: “We work with different pain scales. It is important that they are pain-specific,” says the expert. For example, if a horse has a stomach ache, it should be assessed completely differently than if it had skeletal pain.

It is also important to reassess the situation again and again: “It is important that you treat and then re-evaluate the time it takes for the painkiller to take effect to make sure that you have administered enough of the right painkiller », says Betschart-Wolfensberger. In the case of acute injuries, veterinarians usually use so-called non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs = “non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs”). These “Cox inhibitors” block the enzyme cyclooxygenase, which reduces inflammation and makes it less painful.

After operations or in the case of very serious injuries, opioids are sometimes used, which often require a hospital stay. These do not affect the transmission of the pain stimulus via the nerves, but rather suppress its perception in the brain.

If the pain lasts longer and becomes chronic, NSAIDs can also be administered over several months – provided the horse does not show any side effects such as digestive problems. This is less recommended for opioids. The danger of an emerging addiction is too great. If it is an incurable disease such as arthrosis, Bettschart-Wolfensberger recommends the administration of strong painkillers in acute attacks. In between, only as many painkillers should be given as necessary to maintain the patient’s mobility without causing serious side effects such as stomach ulcers.

Those who do not want to rely exclusively on conventional medicine can support the treatment with home remedies or alternative remedies. For example, cold reduces blood circulation and thus helps with acute inflammation or injuries. Heat, on the other hand, relaxes tense muscles and stimulates blood circulation so that the substances that trigger the inflammation can be removed more quickly. Physiotherapy and acupuncture can also support conventional medical treatment. True to the motto: What is good for people is also good for horses.

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