What is Aspiration Pneumonia?
Aspiration pneumonia has a high fatality rate, so it is better to prevent it than treat it, but if it is caught early enough, aggressive treatment may be successful. In fact, the survival rate has been getting better and there is now a 75% survival rate compared to less than 50% about 10 years ago. An otherwise healthy horse may recover within a few months with antibiotics and daily treatment. The way aspiration pneumonia happens is can be from inhalation during eating (eating too fast or when too sick), or inhaling foreign materials when being worked or ridden at high speeds. The pneumonia damages the cilia in the trachea and it can take several months for new cilia to grow, causing the lengthy recovery time.
Aspiration pneumonia is an infection in the lungs due to inhaling foreign materials. This can be a serious and even fatal condition if not discovered and treated right away. Part of the difficulty with this is that most horses are not handled or visited regularly enough to catch the problem before it becomes too severe. The severity of the condition really depends on what your horse inhaled. This is usually caused by choke from having food inhaled while eating or being bribed to stand still for examination (or any other reason your horse may not want to stand still). Any kind of illness or condition that causes trouble swallowing can also cause aspiration pneumonia as well. This includes horses that are recovering from anesthesia or those with a deformity such as a cleft palate. Having a history of inhaling foreign substances is a major clue to the diagnosis of aspiration pneumonia in horses, so if your horse is coughing or breathing abnormally and has had aspiration pneumonia previously, chances are good that your pet has the same issue again.
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Symptoms of Aspiration Pneumonia in Horses
The signs that your horse may have aspiration pneumonia are usually obvious because of the nature of the condition. Since the damage to the cilia causes coughing, choking, breathing difficulty, and high fever, it is easy to tell that the lungs are compromised. The most commonly reported side effects include:
- Fast or irregular breathing
- Watery eyes
- Sweet smelling breath
- Appetite loss
- Nasal discharge (may be green, brown, or red tinted)
- Coughing up foreign substances or phlegm
- Pale gums from lack of oxygen
- Rapid heart rate
- High body temperature
Causes of Aspiration Pneumonia in Horses
- Inhalation of foreign materials such as dust or food
- An illness that causes swallowing difficulties
- Congenital problems like a cleft palate
- Eating too quickly
Diagnosis of Aspiration Pneumonia in Horses
To diagnose aspiration pneumonia the veterinarian will need to see your horse first and do a complete physical examination from head to tail. First, you should describe why you think your horse may have aspiration pneumonia and describe any side effects that have been seen. Bring your pet’s medical history and immunization records if you have them and let the veterinarian know if you have given your horse any medications. The examination will normally include checking your horse’s weight, lameness, pulse, blood pressure, respiration rate, body temperature, and a body condition score based on your pet’s body weight. Also, your veterinarian will probably do a dental exam, and take a good look at your pet’s skin, eyes, ears, and nose. Checking your horse’s muscle and joint functions comes next. This is done by examining the way the muscles and joints work while your horse is in motion and to check for restricted movements by manual manipulation. Your veterinarian will probably find harsh lung sounds or even a lack of lung sounds in one or both lungs with auscultation.
General blood work will be done including a complete blood count (CBC) and serum biochemistry analysis. The best way to be sure that it is aspiration pneumonia is with an endoscopy. This is done by inserting a long flexible tube down your horse’s throat to get a bronchial sample for microscopic analysis while your pet is under general anesthesia. An ultrasound is the best tool, however, in finding definitive signs such as fluid in the lungs and may also reveal abscesses. In addition, chest x-rays, CT scans, or an MRI may be needed for a more detailed view.
Treatment of Aspiration Pneumonia in Horses
Treating aspiration pneumonia in your horse can be a long and complicated process, trying one treatment after another until the best one is found. These treatments can range from breathing treatments to medication.
Dry and De-stress
The first thing the veterinarian will suggest is moving your horse to a dry, warm, and stress-free environment.
Medications that your veterinarian may give your horse are broad spectrum antibiotics to prevent infection, NSAIDS to reduce swelling and pain, bronchodilators, expectorants, and nebulized mucous reducer. These medications may be given one at a time over several months or all at once if your horse’s pneumonia is advanced or severe. It may take up to a year to clear up the illness completely.
Recovery of Aspiration Pneumonia in Horses
You will need to work with the veterinarian to keep the treatments going as long as it takes. Patience and perseverance are needed because this illness is tough to get rid of and may recur again and again. You will have to follow a strict regimen for feeding so the food does not get into the lungs again.
Aspiration Pneumonia Questions and Advice from Veterinary Professionals
My cob coughed up brown slimey stuff after I gave him a handful of dry Happy Hoof chaff when I got him and his companion in early yesterday because of the awful weather and ground conditions. I usually damp their chaff, because they normally have powdered supplements in it, but this was an extra, as it was not feed time, and I was in a hurry. After 4 bouts of coughing, and expelling reducing amounts of this stuff out of his mouth, he went quiet and didn't seem distressed. He had eaten some of his small soaked-hay net when I went back an hour later, and seemed right as rain (pardon the pun!) when I put them to bed, and again this morning, but I am wondering what the danger period is for Aspiration Pneumonia, and when I can relax my guard. He is a hardy type, and I have had him 7.5 years, and he has never been sick in that time. Thank you in advance.
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Hi there, I have a 4 year old irish sports mare who developed infection 2 weeks after we got her. First symptoms were coughing as soon as we put her into trot, and this developed into coughing upon any demanding exercise and eventually into a cough sometimes at rest and lots of snotty nose etc, both clear and green. Eventually we treated this infection (nearly two months ago) and the snot has cleared up completely and she seems totally herself. We went for another scope though and food is clearly still getting into the trachea again. They scoped her when she was not sedated and it looks like her trachea is closing up properly as it should do. We are completely stumped as to how food is getting in there and don't know what to do. When we first bought her we cantered her several times and there was no cough, whatsoever, not for 2 weeks after we bought her either. Please offer any advice you can, she has no history of choke either.
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