Trainer Magazine

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Inhalation therapy - treating airway problems in the racehorse

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Physiologically speaking, one of the major limiting factors to racehorse performance is how efficiently the lungs can exchange gasses. Training maximises the potential of any athlete, equine or human, to continue functioning at full throttle while the metabolism changes to deal with an oxygen debt in the muscle tissues. Clearly any threat to the efficiency of the lungs will result in poor performance. Horses are subject to a wide range of respiratory diseases; heaves, lung bleeding or exercise- induced pulmonary haemorrhage (EIPH), and exercise induced Airway Inflammatory Disease (IAD) among them. Another description of the same basic problem is Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease or (COPD). Like all mammals, horses suffer from allergic reactions as well as viral and bacterial infections. The epithelial linings of the airways and the lungs are sensitive to infection or foreign bodies of any size, and the result is usually a mucosal discharge which blocks the airway.

Whichever route an animal has airway problems, by infection or allergy, the result is almost the same; mucous builds up, coughing and irritation, frequent nose bleeding and considerably reduced performance. Moreover, some animals with tendencies towards heaves can show little signs of respiratory stress at times, but can be triggered later, more frequently by pollen and dust, when a change in regime occurs. The treatment options can be quite different for horses with a zootic infection to those with an allergy. Treatment of IAD involves the use of bronchial dilators and steroids, which have treatment implications of their own. Some of the drugs used can cause the gut to become sluggish, and can lead to colic.

Many of them induce tachycardia, the speeding of the heart rate, and still others make the animal skittish and nervous. Similarly, the use of corticosteroids in cases of allergic response, can affect the immune system, lead to numbers of other opportunistic infections, particularly in the mouth and have been implicated in laminitis. Bronchodilators include substances well known to human medicine and their function is to cause the dilation of the airways, thus allowing more air in and out of the lung. When irritated, the airways constrict and then produce mucous, which is then countered by the drug. There are two types of drug used for dilation of the airways, and they work very differently in the horse.

The Salbutamol type inhalation works on receptors on the epithelial cells of the airway, relaxing the muscle, thus causing dilation. They work at best for around an hour. A second class of drug, anticholinergics, work on various parts of the larger airway. Consequently, a mixture of the two types of drug is frequently used. Nigel Haizelden of the Ledston Equine Clinic in Castleford, West Yorkshire has been using this therapy for over 12 years and states that all kinds of drugs are administered using this system. Using a nebuliser, antibiotics, corticosteroids and bronchodilators are regularly applied. He points out that “the nebuliser is used to get the specific particle size which is required to reach a certain part of the lung – this is critical to the treatment.” Another important aspect of the bronchodilator is that the easier breathing allows the animal to relax under exercise, something which tends to promote further airway dilation. However, they do nothing for inflammation. Treatment should be associated with a regime which removes the animal from possible irritants. Trainer magazine has dealt with varying aspects in recent issues, from dust-free bedding to pollen allergy; particularly that produced by Oil Seed Rape.

One of the problems of treatment has included the fact that in order to get the drugs into the animal, the whole horse has to be treated. Injecting a horse with drugs means providing a high enough concentration in the animal’s blood which, when diluted by the circulatory system and metabolised by the liver, there is enough at the site of operation to do its work. Consequently a much higher concentration of drug is used than would be required if it could somehow be administered solely where it is needed and nowhere else. Inhalation therapy has been used in humans for a long time, from the vapour baths of Victorian days to modern viral carrier gene manipulation therapy proposed for such disorders as cystic fibrosis.

There are a number of benefits. Firstly the lung is an excellent way of getting a balanced concentration of drug into the blood stream. It works very quickly. In the case of airway disease, the drug is being used directly at the point that it is needed, and consequently the amount of drug required to be effective is greatly reduced. This improves treatment options by reducing the possibility of side effects. There are a couple of products on the market that allow this type of therapy. The Aeromask and the Equine-haler. Both are available via the vet and come from the United States. Their use has become increasingly widespread across Europe, particularly in France and Germany, where there have been particular links with American racing practices. IN the UK they have been used for at least fifteen years and the treatment regimes have developed accordingly. The Aeromask is strapped onto the head and the drug is held in a reservoir called the spacer. The Equine-haler is a cone which has to be held over the nose of the animal while the drugs are placed in a compartment at the bottom. This allows for a metered dose aerosol to deliver a dose to the spacer which is then inhaled by the horse. It only works on one nostril, and a puff of medicine is released into the nose.

The Equine-haler need not be held in position all the time, it allows for a puff of medicine to be fired into a spacer which then can be applied to the horse when it breathes in next time. Between the two it should be possible to find a regime which will ideally suit any animal, those shy of the head bag of the Aeromask could easily treated by the Equine-haler and visa versa according to the treatment required. It is important that only a measured amount of drug is administered, under veterinary control, so that overdoses do not occur. Similarly, the equipment should not be used to administer anything other than prescribed medicines. One yard on the continent was reported to have used their own remedies in association with the mask, which consequently caused some blistering to the horse’s mouth.

There are some risks associated with the use of inhalation therapy. One is associated with the drugs themselves. These drugs are particularly effective on the metabolism of the animal. It produces dilation of blood vessels, particularly in the liver, and it also promotes the production of insulin. In America at least, where there are different rules in various states regards doping, trainers are advised to take advice before racing. However, this method of treatment has meant that withdrawal periods for horses under treatment are considerably reduced in comparison to former treatments. Another possible problem is associated with the effect of the drug on the mouth, where fungal infections have been associated in humans with constant use.