What Behaviour Tells Us About Normal or Abnormal Health

Icon of a book Signs of Normal and Abnormal Health

In general, a healthy horse should appear alert with bright, clear eyes and erect ears that move in the direction of sound (See Figure 2.4). The horse should display a healthy appetite, have a body condition score of 4 to 6 and move soundly on all four legs. Its coat should be sleek and short in the summer and heavier and longer in the winter. The hooves should be smooth and correctly shaped and a digital pulse should be barely perceptible.

Horse looking towards the camera with ears erect.
Figure 2.3: Healthy horse with erect ears

When an animal is feeling ill, it will change its behaviour. The most common signs of illness include:

  • change in the horse’s behaviour (e.g. lethargic, depressed, anxious)
  • reduced feed intake
  • change in water intake
  • change in consistency of manure
  • unexplained change in weight (loss or gain)
  • signs of pain or discomfort (e.g. reluctance to move, increased rate of respiration and sweating)
  • lameness
  • swelling
  • discharge from the eyes, ears or nose
  • coughing or difficulty breathing
  • fever

A painful condition in horses is colic. The most common signs of colic are:

  • repeated lying down, rolling and getting up, or attempting to do so
  • turning the head toward the flank; kicking or biting at the belly; pawing at the ground
  • stretching out as if to urinate, without urinating • depression and/or loss of appetite
  • diarrhea or any change in manure output
  • sweating with minimal physical exertion

The horse is a social animal with a herd instinct. Poor health can change this behaviour. It is common for a sick animal to leave the group completely or maintain a distance from the herd. In some cases, the horse will be unable to keep up to the herd and becomes separated. This is different from chronic problems such as lameness or poor eyesight. With these types of problems, horses will often pair off for company.

Adapted with permission from 4H Horse Reference Manual (Section “Horse Health”)

Icon of a graded written submission Signs of Normal and Abnormal Health (Activity)

Did you know that normal behaviour can be determined by observing the habits of a healthy animal? Once you determine what normal behaviour means for your animal, abnormal behaviour is easier to identify. 

 Actual observation of an animal and its behaviour is an important aspect of animal care. An animal’s behaviour can be compared to our body language. It communicates whether the animal is experiencing discomfort or if its needs are not being met. 

A physical examination of an animal can help to determine its state of health, as well as any abnormal behaviour. A physical examination should involve the use of all your senses – seeing, smelling, listening, touching and sometimes tasting. 

Take a few minutes to complete the following activity.

Activity Instructions

  1. Open your copy of the activities booklet for this module which you saved on your computer at the beginning of the module.
  2. Scroll down to the “Signs of Normal and Abnormal Health” activity item in the booklet. TIP: The links provided in the “Weblinks” item located later in this module will help you complete the activity.
  3. Complete each of the activities outlined in the instructions.
  4. SAVE your work.

When you are done, proceed to the next item here in the online course.

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