When The Storm Clears, Veterinary Challenges Remain For Horses Stuck In Flood Waters

by | 09.12.2017 | 3:45pm
Hurricane Harvey victims

Hurricanes Harvey and Irma flooded two of the largest horse populations in the United States. Texas has a million horses and Florida has a half-million. During the hurricanes, the major threat to these animals was flying debris, but in their aftermath, horses struggled through floodwater to survive.

Floodwater is particularly hazardous because of the level of pollutants it carries. Not only does it harbor bacteria from sewage and other sources, but it also contains harmful chemicals from flooded industrial facilities and breached storage areas on farms.

“I've been through a lot of floods,” said Dr. William Moyer, who in 2015 retired from Texas A&M University after a 22-year career as a professor and head of the Large Animal Clinical Sciences Department. He still helps out as a member of TAMU's Veterinary Emergency Team, which he helped establish during Hurricane Rita in 2005. The unit is the largest and most sophisticated veterinary medical disaster-response team in the country.

Moyer said skin problems are common in horses standing in floodwater. Water leaches natural oils and other protective factors from the skin, making it easier for pollutants to invade. Usually these horses don't suffer from a specific skin disease with a name, he said, but from exposure to a variety of irritants, chemicals, and bacteria that can have a deleterious effect, depending on the concentration.

“If you look at some of these refineries, there are cattle or horses grazing on the other side of the fence,” he said. “But with the exception of one chemical plant incident during Harvey, I don't think there have been any toxic spills.”

Moyer said the most important thing is to get the horse somewhere it can dry off and examine it closely to find and treat any open wounds, even small ones. He said to pay particular attention to the pasterns and the backside of the fetlocks, where the feather might hide a wound.

“You might see a little cut that you normally wouldn't even treat,” he said. “But then two days later the leg is blown up all the way up to the horse's chest because the contamination is such that just a nick potentially becomes a significant problem.

“Clean it up with soap and water or some kind of effective disinfectant,” he said.

Clean water in disaster areas usually is scarce, but if a safe water supply via a hose is available, Moyer said to bathe the horse in mild detergent, such as Dawn dish soap, to wash off contamination from the floodwater.

If possible, horsemen should try to find out the status of the tetanus vaccination of any horse pulled from floodwater and boost it, if needed.

Hoof wounds

Dick Fanguy is a former president of the American Farrier's Association who lives near Baton Rouge, La. Though his area was spared from flooding this time around, he took care of many horses during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, triaging their foot wounds and passing them on to veterinary students for further care.

“These horses are going to come out of that water and their feet are going to be extremely soft,” he said.

Soft hooves are more easily penetrated when they step on foreign objects. The hazards depend on the area where a horse is found. In urban areas, debris from damaged buildings is under the water, whereas horses in rural areas will be exposed to fewer hazards.

“I pulled so many foreign objects out of soles that it was ridiculous,” Fanguy said. “We rescued two horses from New Orleans, and I pulled roofing nails and glass out of their feet. But horses that were in a rural setting just came in with wet, soaked feet. It was just a matter of putting them in a dry stall and letting nature do what nature does.”

Puncture wounds were the priority because of the danger from pollution in the floodwater. For these, Fanguy immediately disinfected the wound with a surgical scrub, debrided it, packed it with a mixture of Epsom salt and povidone iodine (Betadine), and wrapped the foot.

“My experience is that a hoof is a very resilient thing and will come out all right,” he said.

One of the tragedies in the wake of disasters is that many horses (and other animals) are never reunited with their owners because they bear no identification. Moyer, a strong proponent of microchipping, hopes these hurricanes will be a wake-up call for owners to have their animals microchipped.

Louisiana requires all horses to be microchipped, branded, or tattooed to receive their regular Coggins paperwork. In the aftermath of Katrina and Rita, the majority of recovered horses carried microchips. The reunion of horses with their owners was delayed however, when rescue workers found that many chips did not have up-to-date contact information for owners. Updating chip information and conventional forms of identification such as braiding tags into a horse's mane ahead of a disaster can help get them home later.

Editor's note: An earlier note stating all but one of 364 recovered horses being reunited with their owners thanks to microchips has been removed. The correct figure is closer to 90 percent of recovered horses. The article has been updated to reflect the challenges Louisiana rescue workers faced when looking for up-to-date contact information through microchips.

  • NMBird

    I’m so glad to see that there are so many dedicated folks looking out for horses during these crises! There is high visibility for dog and cat shelters, less so for horses.

    Thanks for this very informative article!

  • longshot

    Is there a place where we can send donations to help these vets out

  • OopsyDaisy3

    I worried about the horses before i did people. Reason: people could get in a car and leave.
    With so many horses, they had no place to go. This is my worse nightmare for all the creatures who don’t get a weather warning nor have a way out and away from harm’s way.
    As longshot is asking where can we send donations to the vets? Please someone
    provide an answer. Thank you, Linda in Texas

  • tired of blowhards

    There is a great need for help with both Harvey and Irma equine relief. Please consider donating as I mentioned below. I was made aware that over 50 horses with various problems, particularly skin issues from standing in water and colics, were presented to the Texas A&M veterinary hospital this past weekend from the Houston animal shelter. No owners identified so no responsible party but the horses are being treated anyway. Please consider helping the efforts. Thanks!

  • tired of blowhards

    Hey Paulick Report, why did you delete my comment to longshot about where to donate?
    What gives??? Not interested in helping the horses?

    • Mary Schweitzer

      It wasn’t deleted….in fact, it’s right above your comment. :)

      • tired of blowhards

        I can’t see it. I can see my other two post though.

    • RayPaulick

      Hey Blowhard … comments containing links automatically go into a moderation queue (to prevent spam comments containing links to pornography and pfishing sites). We appreciate you putting that AAEP Foundation link up.

  • Cardaddy

    Ray Paulick, Your last paragraph stating that La. requires all horses to be microchipped, may not be accurate, as I have horses in La. and have never heard this until the Jockey Club now requiring foals to be chipped. I dont know of anyone else in the horse community that has done this.

    • tired of blowhards

      The law in La. is that every horse residing in the state, whether it leaves the farm or not, must have an annual Coggins Test and every horse having a Coggins test must have an individual ID – a tattoo, a unique brand or a microchip. Most owners other than racehorse owners chose microchipping. Now with the new Jockey Club rule, most horses are being microchipped.

      • Denise Steffanus

        Blowhard, thanks for clarifying this. I should have said “permanent identification” is required in LA. Your comment is 100% accurate.

  • Richard C

    Think of the money that could be raised if railbirds earmarked just one wager for an upcoming day at the races to a charity assisting horses and/or other animals…..I am sure track officials wouldn’t mind.

  • Old Horse

    So many supplies are needed right now to help treat all the flood horses, i.e, vet wrap, antiseptic spray, iodine shampoo, etc that can be ordered thru any vet supply company and sent to the Houston SPCA, 900 Portway Dr, Houston, TX 77024, ph 713-869-7722. I had 2 doz nylon halters and 2 doz cotton lead ropes ordered and shipped there to help out. The needs are endless. I’m sure they would appreciate any kind of vet supplies right now.

  • longshot


  • Minneola

    Recently, someone sent me a link to a FB page of a horse that had been stranded in flood waters and had a severe rash and open wounds on all legs. It’s hard to describe how serious this looked. It wasn’t some minor rash that we might get, occasionally. It was horrible. I wish there was a close-up photo on this story of what this looks like. Very, very frightening. Very horrid.

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