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Written by: Paige Galindo
Legs are wrapped, hay net is full, water is easily accessible, and the window is open so he can freely watch the countryside pass by. The horse seems all set for a long haul journey. Or is he really all set? It is true that most horses travel well long distance without much incidence but a horse is a horse and owners should always be alert of the unexpected. The longer the distance travelled, the greater the chance of shipping fever creeping in even under the seemingly most ideal travelling conditions. This nasty sickness settles into the horse’s respiratory system and can stay there for several weeks, even long after the horse is done travelling. With such a long recovery, it is exceedingly crucial that preventative measures are applied with precision and care, especially for performance horses.
Shipping fever defined
Pleuropneumonia is the medical term for shipping fever and it involves fluid build up between the lungs and pleural cavity. The cavity itself is the space in between the two pleural sacs of continuous membrane that wrap around the lungs. In a normal, healthy pleural cavity, there can be found a small amount of serous fluid which provides ample lubrication for the lungs rubbing against the chest wall. When extra fluid enters this cavity that wraps around the lungs, large amounts of stress is placed on the horse’s lungs and breathing becomes very difficult and painful. The lungs are weighed down by the extra fluid and the lubrication has been disrupted.
A nasty culprit
One of the main contributors to horses developing shipping fever is the horse’s vulnerability to increased dust particles due to travelling. A horse’s respiratory system is highly sensitive to dust so its important that the horse is able to drain these particles from their system via their nostrils. Unfortunately, because horses are kept tied during the long ride, their heads are prevented from dropping so that the mucous catching the extra dust can drain from their nose. Coupled with a hay net chock full of dusty forage right next to their face and bedding that kicks up dust from stomping hooves, this is a recipe for a shipping fever disaster. The bacteria from this dusty environment is inhaled through their nose and is allowed to make its way further down the respiratory system until it finally lands in the pleural cavity around the lungs.
It’s never smart to make a horse travel without the bedding and the hay. When they are standing for long periods of time, the bedding provides extra cushion for their joints. Because horses need to forage continuously, hay is vital to have available for their digestive systems, especially while they stand with little to no movement for their digestive tract. Eliminating even one of these two things is never a good option but a couple of measures can be taken to prevent the onset of shipping fever arising from the use of hay and bedding.
A common way to address the issue of dust particles from the hay is to soak the hay before transporting the horse. While this sounds like a good solution, research has shown that soaking the hay takes away the nutrients, increases chances of bacterial growth, and only dampens the dust particles. Steaming the hay at high temperatures, on the other hand, helps retain the nutrients in the hay, reduces the amount of water used, and reduces both bacterial and dust particles. To take this a step further, it’s better to avoid using homemade steamers to steam the hay as it only creates an equally viable atmosphere for bacteria as if the hay was simply soaked. Because commercial-grade hay steamers penetrate the hay itself, the heat is harnessed and directed only at the hay therefore the hay is prevented from becoming a harbouring site for more bacteria build up.
While it is true that most horses can travel without much of a problem, special care should be taken the longer the distance travelled to avoid the onset of shipping fever. Old methods such as soaking hay only put a damper on the dust particles that trigger shipping fever while steaming the hay reduces them dramatically.