Treating a Burn

Treating a Burn

by Heather Smith Thomas of Salmon, ID

Treating a Burn
Kim & her mother with Shorty a year after the fire.


A Quarter Horse gelding named Shorty survived a barn fire (1984) and made an amazing recovery after having 80% of his body surface burned. He and several other horses were tied in the barn at lunchtime during a neighborhood calf branding when a fire started in the straw due to faulty electric wiring. The other horses broke loose and were not burned as badly. Most of Shorty’s body was burned, except over his back where his saddle protected him.

Quick action by his rescuers (hosing him down with cold water and then putting ice packs over his body until the veterinarian arrived) and diligent around-the-clock doctoring for several weeks afterward saved his life – along with his courageous will to live, and the caring support of the little girl who loved him. Shorty recovered and eventually resumed his activities running the barrels and competing in Little Britches rodeo events with his young owner.

Burns can be caused by excessive heat (from a fire) or from steam or hot liquids that scald the skin. Excessive cold can damage and kill the tissues also – just as seriously as excessive heat – and frostbitten areas of the body should be treated as you would treat a burn. Certain chemicals such as acids or alkalies or other caustic substances may also cause tissue damage like a burn.

A burn injury may be minor or serious, depending on the extent of surface area involved and on the depth of the burn into the tissues. A superficial burn goes no deeper than the skin, while a deep burn involves the whole layer of skin and perhaps the fatty tissues underneath, or even the muscles.

If much of the skin is destroyed, many problems can develop. A severely burned horse is likely to go into shock and may collapse into coma and eventual death. Shock may occur soon after the accident or up to 12 hours afterward. This condition is brought about by circulatory failure due to loss of fluid from the small blood vessels.

Toxemia and infection can also follow an extensive burn. The damaged skin cells may die and produce toxic substances. Opportunistic micro- organisms may invade the raw surfaces and damaged tissues and start multiplying, producing poisonous toxins in the process. The body then absorbs these toxins and carries them around in the bloodstream, leading to a general poisoning of the body (toxemia) with fever and illness.

Treating a Burn
The burned saddle & pad that probably saved Shorty’s life.

Another sequel to a burn from a fire may be pneumonia, due to lung damage from inhaling smoke and ashes. Damage to a horse’s lungs from fire can also produce some scarring in the lungs, and a permanent respiratory problem.

The appearance of a burn will depend a lot upon the depth of tissue damage. Excessive heat will completely burn off the hair, but a deep scald from hot liquid can do just as much damage without destroying the hair, and the effects might not be as obvious for several days – until the damaged and dying skin starts to slough off.

Excessive heat kills the surface cells and injures the deeper tissues. The small blood vessels in the skin, damaged and dilated, allow fluid to escape and accumulate in the surrounding tissues, creating edema and swelling. Some of the fluid escapes to the surface, making a hairless area look red and moist. If the skin was scalded and the hair is still in place, the oozing fluid makes the hair mat together, forming a crusty mess.

A burn caused by corrosive chemicals should have immediate veterinary attention, just like a burn from heat. A burn caused by acid should be rinsed with an alkaline solution to neutralize the acid. An alkaline solution can be made by adding a spoonful of baking soda to a pint of warm water. If no soda is available, the acid should be washed off with plenty of warm water. A burn from a caustic alkali should be rinsed with a mild acid solution such as vinegar and water to neutralize the alkali.

Damaged tissue from frostbite (which can occur if a horse has to stand in mud and water during very cold weather, or is caught in a severe winter storm where temperatures are well below zero, with wind) can be treated like a burn. The effect of cold and wet can cause death of the surface skin cells and damage to the deeper layers. Just like in a burn, the small blood vessels of the skin dilate and fluid oozes through the capillary walls into the surrounding tissues; the area becomes swollen and painful.

Treating a Burn
Kim & Shorty, a year after the fire, almost totally healed.

An extensive burn that covers more than 5% of the horse’s body surface will need immediate veterinary attention. The horse will need treatment to prevent a shock as well as first aid treatment for the burn. He should be given painkillers and steroids to reduce the effects of shock, swelling and inflammation, and I.V. fluids to counteract circulatory failure – to keep his circulating blood volume up and keep blood pressure from dropping. If shock can be reversed or prevented during the first 24 hours after a serious burn, the horse has a much better chance of surviving.

First aid treatment for a serious burn should include ice packs or cold packs, or even cold water from a garden hose – as soon as possible if the burn was caused by excessive heat, to try to reduce the depth of the burn and minimize the tissue damage. Painkillers should be given, and antibiotics will be needed to help prevent infection in the damaged tissues, and head off pneumonia.

A severely burned horse may also need help with his bodily functions. Depending on the site of the burn, it may be painful for him to urinate and defecate. He may need a catheter to help him pass urine, and he may need soft feed or enemas (or oil in his feed or by stomach tube to soften his feces) to help him pass bowel movements.

Dark brown urine from the horse indicates serious tissue damage; a breakdown in body tissues creates waste products that are carried off by the bloodstream and eliminated in the urine. But any urination at all is a good sign. The horse will not be able to urinate if damage and shock are too great.

Besides I.V. fluids, the horse can be given additional fluids and nutrients by stomach tube to keep up his strength and help keep his body functions working. If he tries to eat or drink on his own, that’s a very good sign. Encourage him with clean water and very palatable feeds (such as green grass or fine alfalfa).

The burned areas should be gently and carefully cleaned. Any loose charred skin, hair or debris can be gently removed with gauze soaked in warm saline solution or with a mild antiseptic solution. A soothing antibiotic ointment can be applied to the raw areas.

In the days following the burn, more skin may start to slough away if the skin cells were killed or damaged by the heat. The dead and dying skin will have to be carefully removed and the raw areas disinfected and covered with a soothing and protective salve. The horse should be kept on phenylbutazone during these first days to help reduce inflammation and pain. Vitamins A, D, and E can be given to help promote healing and regrowth of skin. The horse should stay on systemic antibiotics until the worst danger from infection and pneumonia is past.

Treating a Burn
Kim & Shorty once again running the barrels a year after the fire.


Growing skin back over the burned areas may be a very lengthy process if the burn is extensive. Usually any animal that is burned over more than 50% of the body has a poor chance of surviving, but horses have been known to recover (with good veterinary care) with as much as 80% of the body area burned.

The raw areas should be cleaned and treated every day to help prevent infection. New skin will start to grow in from the edges of the raw places, eventually covering the flesh again. The attending veterinarian may decide to use skin grafts to help speed up the process if the raw areas are very large.

During the healing process, the raw flesh should be protected from dirt and flies. If the burn is on the main body, a light covering made from old bed sheets may be helpful in summer to keep flies off the raw tissues. In cold weather the horse will need some kind of heavy blanketing to protect the injured areas from the cold, since they have lost the insulating cover of skin and hair.

A serious burn may take months to grow the skin and hair back, but the body’s ability to regenerate is amazing, if given half a chance. Prompt action to prevent shock will help the horse survive the first crucial hours. And diligent, conscientious doctoring of the burns to prevent infection as they heal will help speed the recovery.