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For the love of you pet: Reduce irritants to prevent upper respiratory infections in horses

By By Shana Bohac
Jan. 9, 2014 at midnight
Updated Jan. 8, 2014 at 7:09 p.m.


Fall and winter are the prime time for horses to get upper respiratory infections. The most common signs you will see in your horse are fever, nasal discharge and coughing. Your horse may also begin to mope around, have labored breathing, lose his or her appetite and act lethargic.

The most common culprits for upper respiratory infections are equine herpesvirus type 1 and 4, equine influenza virus and Streptococcus equi subspecies equi (also known as strangles). Fungal infections can cause problems with the upper respiratory tract as well; however, this is much less common.

Bacterial and viral diseases are all highly infectious, so if any are suspected, then measures need to be taken to quarantine your horse from other horses on the property to minimize exposure. The infected horse should not be allowed to mingle with other horses.

All equipment should be properly sanitized, and the infected horse should have its own set of equipment and grooming tools. Handlers should also be aware that they too carry the pathogen on their clothing, boots and hands. The infected horse should be the last fed and their stall the last cleaned.

Treatment for respiratory issues include: antihistamines, corticosteroids, bronchodilators and antibiotics. Antihistamines are used to reduce the immune system's reaction to irritants in the environment and help reduce inflammation. They are typically very safe but not generally effective in horses.

Corticosteriods improve lung function by decreasing inflammation in the airways. Bronchodilators help relax the smooth muscles of the airways, allowing for increased air flow. Antibiotics alleviate bacterial infections present and protect the horse from a secondary bacterial overgrowth in the case of viral infections.

Respiratory irritants can be a cause of equine respiratory problems and set up a good environment for infection. Respiratory irritants include: riding areas and round pens, hay, pelleted feeds, bedding, and leaf blowers. Arenas and round pens with a lot of sand should be wetted down to reduce the amount of dust produced during exercise.

While tossing hay into a stall, a lot of dust is created, so it is best to provide hay when the stall is empty and allow all the respiratory irritant to settle. Leaf blowers are handy to clean the barn; however, they stir up dangerous amounts of dust and dirt that can remain in the air for hours.

Pelleted feed can create a tiny cloud of dust when poured into a feed bucket. It is best to allow the dust to settle prior to allowing access. You can also lightly sprinkle the feed with water to minimize the dust particles as well.

Poor quality bedding will contain a lot of sawdust that can irritate the airways; therefore, the best choice of bedding is large wood shaving. If this is not an option, then you can soak down the bedding with water daily to reduce dust.

Dr. Shana Bohac has a veterinary practice at Hill crest Animal Hospital in Victoria. She works on both small animals and equine patients. Submit questions to drshanabohac@hotmail.com.

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