House calls

Pet emergencies often mean a frantic a trip to the vet. But what do you do when your animal companion weighs almost as much as your car?

Enter mobile veterinarians, who bring the clinic to the animal.

“I can sometimes pull onto a farm for an emergency call and just look at the animal and — this sounds kind of crazy — I can smell if the horse is really, really sick, before I’ve even examined it. It's that terrible, sick, sweaty smell,” says Dr. Ann Stuart of Appalachian Equine, one of a handful of local farm vets.

Stuart knows a lot about the unexpected. “When the emergencies come in, we have to squeeze them in and rearrange the day’s schedule, and it becomes a joke that I had this schedule at all, because it's usually out the window,” she reveals.

On this particular day, she’d had a call about a horse with a potentially lethal case of colic. When the client went to feed her horse that morning, she found him lying down, rolling and thrashing in pain.

“So she called me,” Stuart explains. “She had a shot to give for pain while I was zooming out there.” As extra security, the owner asked a neighbor to bring a horse trailer. If Ann couldn’t promptly resolve the problem, the animal's life might depend on quick transport for emergency surgery.

Not for the faint of heart

After receiving more pain medication, the horse was able to stand. Stuart then sedated it so she could continue the examination.

“There are certain parameters I look at, starting at the nose and working my way back to the tail: presence or absence of gut sounds, hydration status (feeling the gums to see if they're slippery), that kind of thing. Some of it's numbers and some of it's colors. I have to make this whole big-picture assessment on how sick this horse is — it’s not always fancy gadgets but experiences I've had, and some intuition.”

In this case, she explains, “I passed a tube through his nose into his stomach, and I tried to siphon off to check for reflux. If he had things backing up into his stomach, that would be very bad, since horses can't throw up. Then I explore if anything was abnormal in his abdomen, or if the colon had been displaced.”

This kind of “assessment” involves a very long plastic glove and a whole bunch of lubricant; it’s not a job for the faint of heart. “I can feel the back half (well, the back third, anyway) of the abdomen,” Stuart explains.

“Everything about this horse looked good: gum color, pulse, some gut sounds, rectal exam, tube, all that stuff. The only abnormal thing was that the horse had pain before I got there; sometimes, the only clue is pain.

Based on that, I gave him a big laxative. Usually they’re either impacted (meaning constipation — and if you’re a horse, it's a BIG constipation), or it's a gas bubble. They could die from gas pain. If you've ever had it, it can be overwhelming. If your colon is the size of me, then you know that's a pretty big gas pain.”

Happily, the horse's pulse came down and he started having gut sounds again. With a stethoscope, Stuart listened to his belly from different areas on both sides. The horse was now acting happy and looking for food.

“If he hadn't responded to the painkillers, that's probably the most important reason to send him to a hospital for potential surgery,” she explains.

“Horses have a relatively small stomach, because they eat constantly. They are eating machines, and if something goes wrong in that system, it's kind of a crisis. All they do is eat and run — and then run into things. That's probably about it. And I would be out of a job but for that.”

— To learn more about Appalachian Equine, call 828-658-8989. Susan Hutchinson can be reached at


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