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Your horse's eye is swollen. Now what do you do?

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Submitted by Dr. Tracy Bartick-Sedrish

It’s chore time and when your horse greets you at the fence you see that his eye is swollen shut and oozing. What do you do?

Call the veterinarian immediately. “The first thing I will ask a client when they call is what does the eyeball itself look like? Is the eyeball clear or cloudy?” Dr. Steven Sedrish, MS, DVM, Dipl ACVS of Upstate Equine Medical Center added. A horse’s head contains a lot of blood and when a horse bumps its head, the point of impact swells a lot.

Based on the feedback you provide the veterinarian can help him/her decide how urgent the case is. “If a horse owner tells me the horse’s eye is cloudy, then I know the problem is with the horse’s cornea and I will be out to see the horse that day,” Sedrish added. A horse’s cornea is like an onion, it has several layers and a small scratch on the cornea can quickly turn into a deep laceration if not treated promptly.

“On the other hand, if the horse owner tells me the horse’s eyeball is clear, I will tell them to apply a cold compress and rinse with saline, but instruct them not to put any antibiotics in the eye until I can get out to look at it the next day,” Sedrish noted. Though not a 100% guarantee, typically when a horse’s eye is swollen, but the eyeball itself is clear, the diagnosis is external trauma.

“The most important take home message is never, never, never, never put a steroid like dexamethasone or prednisone or an antibiotic cream in your horse’s eye before talking to your vet,” Dr. Tracy Bartick-Sedrish, DVM of Upstate Equine Medical Center emphasized. "Steroids inhibit healing and a small ulcer can become a large, perforating one.  Antibiotic creams can interfere with our ability to culture a lesion in the event that we think there is a bacterial infection.  What we would like to do is to examine the eye, dye it (for ulcers) if necessary and proceed from there.  (the dye is fluorescein dye)," she added.

The prognosis depends on what the horse’s eyeball looks like, how deep the laceration is and how willing the horse’s owner is to intervene. “A superficial ulcer is easy to treat. Sometimes a good cleaning and antibiotics is all it will need. If it is a deep wound, surgery will be necessary to strengthen the cornea and help it heal,” Sedrish noted.

How Can I Prevent Eye Injury In My Horse?
Preventing all eye injuries are impossible. “Unfortunately, you can’t really prevent eye ulcers and scrathes 100%,” Bartick-Serish noted, “horses live in a dusty environment with their heads constantly down. Dirt gets in their eyes and they blink and that can be enough to cause a scratch”

While horses can be prone to eye injuries there are a few things you can do to lessen their chance of injuring their eyes.

• Check all stalls and pastures for loose boards, nails or splinters
• Know the pecking order in your herd. Introduce a new horse carefully.
• Tape all of the hooks on your water and feed buckets. “We can’t tell you how many nose and eye injuries could be prevented if the owner had taken the time to duct tape the hooks on the water/feed buckets,” Sedrish & Bartick-Sedrish noted.
• Avoid letting your horse’s head hang out of the trailer. “My biggest pet peeve is when I see people driving down the road with their horse or dog’s head out the window. A millimeter sized speck of dirt flying at 60 mph can do a lot of damage to the eye,” Sedrish commented.

Still looking for more information about eye trauma? Contact Dr. Tracy Bartick-Sedrish or Dr. Steven Sedrish at Upstate Equine via email at upstateequine@aol.com.

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