What is Inflammatory Airway Disease?
A top reason for an athletic horse’s performance being limited is lower airway inflammation, which can lead to inflammatory airway disease. The condition impacts up to 50% of horse athletes. Several factors make a horse more susceptible to the condition, which results from inhaled dust and particles. Fortunately, the disease, which will most often impact young to middle-aged horses, is treatable and most horses that develop the condition make a full recovery.
Inflammation in the lower airway of a horse as a result of inhaled dust and other particles can lead to inflammatory airway disease, which most often impacts young to middle-aged horse athletes.
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Symptoms of Inflammatory Airway Disease in Horses
Should your horse be experiencing inflammatory airway disease, the following symptoms may be seen:
- Coughing at irregular intervals
- Nasal discharge
- Slight intolerance of physical activity
- Anomalies when listening to the lungs
- A gathering of tracheobronchial mucus
Typically, should your horse suffer from inflammatory airway disease, he will not show an increased effort to breathe while at rest.
When airway inflammation is more severe, it will be considered recurrent airway obstruction, while when it is less severe it will be considered inflammatory airway disease.
In inflammatory airway disease, your horse will not show obvious respiratory difficulty and typically won’t have any signs of systemic illness. It is likely that inflammatory airway disease includes other diseases that are connected to inflammation of the lower airway. If your horse is not showing an increase in effort to breathe while at rest, yet displays inflammation, he is likely experiencing inflammatory airway disease rather than recurrent airway obstruction. Some severe cases caused by bacteria can lead to pneumonia or pleuropneumonia.
Causes of Inflammatory Airway Disease in Horses
There are various causes of inflammatory airway disease; factors may be allergic, environmental, bacterial and viral. It is thought that younger performance horses encounter a lot of things that can begin and continue irritation in their respiratory tract. The following are considered risk factors for inflammatory airway disease:
Two-year old horses that are training have a significantly greater likelihood of developing inflammatory airway disease than three year olds. This may be a result of younger horses not previously experiencing irritants or having a weaker immune system.
When your horse breathes deeply when exercising intensely, cold, dry air will come into the lower respiratory tract. The cold air as well as the particles that are inhaled may lead to inflammation and cause injury to the epithelial lining of your horse’s respiratory tract, which will lead to inflammatory airway disease.
When a horse is being transported he will have his head elevated for an extended period of time and have the opportunity to inhale dust particles. In addition, the horse will experience stress as a result of the transport, which will cause the function of lung cells to be suppressed, leading to inflammation of the lower airway and possibly inflammatory airway disease.
A horse will have a higher risk of developing inflammatory airway disease should he live in stables with poor ventilation and straw bedding. These factors can lead to more dust and other particles in the air which can lead to inflammatory airway disease.
Diagnosis of Inflammatory Airway Disease in Horses
Your veterinarian will conduct a physical examination of your horse, and ask you to describe the symptoms you have noticed in your horse, when you first noticed them, and any changes that have taken place. Your veterinarian may choose to utilize the following in order to diagnose inflammatory airway disease and ascertain how serious your horse’s condition:
- Endoscopy - Should pus be present, it points to inflammatory airway disease
- Bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL) - Considered the best way to determine inflammatory airway disease and its extent; your veterinarian can determine how much inflammation is in your horse’s small airway through looking closely at the cells found on the BAL
- Lung function testing - This involves specialized equipment that is not always available, however this form of testing can lead to earlier detection of the condition
Treatment of Inflammatory Airway Disease in Horses
Upon diagnosing your horse, your veterinarian will recommend how to treat your horse for the condition. Recommended treatment will likely include medical management, rest, and changes in aspects of his care.
In regards to medication, corticosteroids may be considered, though the inhaled forms of the medication are expensive, which makes them hard to use long-term. Bronchodilator therapy, for example, clenbuterol, may be helpful in treatment, however while they lessen the severity of the condition, they don’t resolve the inflammatory process.
As inflammatory airway disease is linked to your horse’s exposure to irritants that he has breathed in, should you not make necessary changes to his diet and environment, the medication won’t entirely resolve the condition. Your veterinarian may recommend the following:
- That you change the bedding your horse uses to a low-dust option, like lower-dust wood shavings
- Increase ventilation in the barn or stall where your horse resides
- Coordinate your chores around when your horse will be outside, so that he may avoid breathing in the dust and other particles that become airborne during cleaning of the stall or barn
- Don’t feed your horse dusty hay; instead try chopped forages or a pelleted complete feed
- Allow your horse to be outside of the dusty environment for as much of the day as you can
Recovery of Inflammatory Airway Disease in Horses
Should your horse receive appropriate treatment, it is likely that he can improve his function athletically, though he may still experience some intolerance of exercise. It is possible that inflammatory airway disease can lead to recurrent airway obstruction if not managed, however, this is not confirmed. It is important that you work closely with your veterinarian and follow the recommendations that he makes in order to ensure the best outcome for your horse.
Inflammatory Airway Disease Questions and Advice from Veterinary Professionals
Hi: We own a quarter horse with a heavy body build and have noticed a breathing problem. She isn't coughing and usually has a dry nose but her breathing is always noticeable and faster than the other horses and in hot humid weather there is a heave like push in the belly. The winter months are fine but you can always see her breathe and the breathing rate is a little higher than normal. She is a little anxious and we also notice when she is upset her breathing is really rapid and when she is in a heat cycle once again her breathing is rapid. We have only owned her for just over a year and she is 11 yrs old. We called a vet last august when we noticed her panting after a new horse had been added to the herd and he couldn't find anything other than allergies as a cause. We give her antihistamine when we notice a heave like push to her breathing. My question is can a large barrel horse breathe rapidly at certain times without having a respiratory or airway disease.
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