By Dr. Ryan Lukens
Shipping fever is a respiratory disease complex associated with the transport of horses. A common scenario for shipping fever is when a horse is trailered from its barn to another state to attend a show. The horse may be healthy and well-hydrated before entering the trailer, but the stress of travel can weaken the immune system.
Another leading factor is tying a horse’s head up while trailering long distances. The mucociliary apparatus of the trachea, which clears dirt and debris from the lower airway, is interrupted due to dehydration, change in temperature, and the inability of the horse to lower its head. The introduction of foreign material into the lower airway can lead to pneumonia, fluid in the pleural cavity (surrounding the lungs), and associated respiratory distress.
Common symptoms noted are hyperventilation, increased rectal temperature, coughing, and nasal discharge after travel. The horse may seem depressed, not willing to work, and not interested in food or water. It is important to call the vet immediately if any of these symptoms are observed after a horse travels. The faster an infection in the lower airway is treated, the quicker and more likely the horse can recover. Shipping fever, if left untreated, can lead to severe pleuropneumonia, which can be life-threatening.
Initial treatment includes antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, and hydration. If pneumonia progresses without treatment, surgery may be indicated, which can include removal of a rib and placement of chest drains (to drain fluid around the lungs). The vet should be called, and it is crucial to begin treatment at the earliest sign.
There are several preemptive steps that can be implemented to reduce the risk of a horse developing respiratory disease related to travel:
1. Split up long trailer rides over several days. Be sure to take breaks and let horses out of the trailer at least every 6-8 hours, if possible.
2. Ensure the horse is properly hydrated before travel. Common preventative practice includes administration of oral or IV fluids by a veterinarian prior to travel.
3. Discontinue any immunosuppressant drugs 48 hours prior to travel. This includes steroids such as dexamethasone.
4. Ship horses in a box stall or similar enclosure so their heads do not have to be tied during travel.
5. Ask a veterinarian about immunostimulant drugs that can be given prior to travel.