Apr 14 2010
As written by Heather Smith Thomas for thehorse.com, pneumonia in horses and foals is an inflation in the lungs of horses which can be fatal.
Pneumonia is, simply put, inflammation of the lungs. It can be mild or life-threatening (and quickly fatal) depending on its cause and the age of the foal. Pneumonia can be caused by viruses, bacteria, or fungi. Many foals are susceptible to developing pneumonia because of a lack of adequate maternal antibodies contained in colostrum. Very ill foals often will show few signs, so it is up to owners to know when a young foal “isn’t right” and call the veterinarian immediately.
Lais Costa, MV, MS, PhD, Dipl. ACVIM, assistant professor in large animal medicine at Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in North Grafton, Mass., says pneumonia is considered the main cause of morbidity and mortality in foals less than six months of age.
What Causes It?
In most cases, pneumonia occurring in foals one to six months of age is caused when the foal inhales the causative airborne organisms–viruses, bacteria, or fungi. Maternal antibodies start to wane when the foal is three to six months of age, so the youngster becomes more vulnerable to these agents.
“Newborn foals that for whatever reason don’t get the antibody package in colostrum from the mare are at risk for developing infectious disease, but the lung is especially–and commonly–problematic,” says Philip Johnson, BVSc, MRCVS, MS, Dipl. ACVIM, professor of equine medicine and surgery at the University of Missouri-Columbia. “Pneumonia, secondary to failure of passive transfer, is common at that age.”
Pneumonia can start as a herpesvirus or influenza infection. The foal’s lungs are weakened and his defenses are reduced, leaving the lungs open for bacterial invasion.
“Several types of bacteria are involved in pneumonia in foals, but most bacterial infections of the lung are secondary to an initial insult,” notes Costa.
In newborn foals, notes Bonnie Barr, VMD, Dipl. ACVIM, of Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, Ky., the main causes of pneumonia are Streptococcus bacteria or gram-negative bacterial organisms such as Klebsiella.
Costa says many of the bacteria that cause pneumonia are found normally in the environment and only cause trouble when a foal’s resistance is lowered by stress, viral infection, or some other problem.
“Many of these bacteria are part of the intestinal flora of horses,” says Costa. “Virulent strains of Rhodococcus equi cause severe pneumonia in foals and may become endemic to a farm (see sidebar on page 58). Other bacterial agents such as Streptococcus equi (which causes strangles) may occasionally result in pneumonia, but strangles is usually just an upper respiratory infection.”
Parasite migration, especially larval migration of ascarids (a common intestinal parasite of foals), can damage lungs and lead to a secondary bacterial infection.
There are many events in a foal’s life that can stress him and hamper his immune system–anything from a long trailer trip to bad weather at weaning time, and from extreme heat or cold to poor air quality in a stall (dust from bedding or hay, or ammonia fumes from urine and manure).
If a foal less than one month of age develops pneumonia, you should look for other sites in the foal where the bacteria have caused infection. “The route of infection in neonatal foals is generally hematogenous (spread via the bloodstream),” says Costa. Thus, it could also settle in the joints or affect other organs of the body.
The inhalation of airborne irritants by foals is thought to be key in pneumonia and other health issues such as heaves in foals. Products such as Stall Genie limit airborne irritants such as Ammonia in stalls, improving the health of your horses and foals.
Diagnosing the Disease
Signs of pneumonia might be very different in the newborn foal than in an older foal. The newborn is more prone to lung infection originating from the bloodstream (introduced by bacteria gaining access through the digestive tract or umbilical stump). This type of infection doesn’t create as many respiratory signs as infection originating from inhaled airborne pathogens. If pneumonia is due to septicemia caused by Salmonella, the foal might have diarrhea and possibly joint infection.
“The hematogenous infection stays compartmented between the layers of tissue in the lungs, rather than affecting the air passages, so it’s more likely to remain at the alveolar level (within the tiny air sacs, where gas exchange occurs in breathing) or interstitial level (between the layers of tissue in the lung lining),” explains Costa.
With this type of infection, you don’t hear the wheezing or crackling sounds of bronchopneumonia if you are listening to the lungs with a stethoscope.
“Thus, a newborn foal may have very severe pulmonary illness without having abnormal lung sounds or a cough,” explains Costa. “People may think that since they don’t hear wheezing or abnormal breath sounds, it must not be pneumonia. That makes newborn foals a lot trickier in terms of diagnosis.”
Some of these foals have fevers, others have subnormal temperatures.
“The only clue may be that the breathing rate is increased and the breathing pattern abnormal or labored,” says Costa. “Newborn foals do not have much glycogen storage, and when they are not nursing well (due to feeling sick), they become easily fatigued if breathing takes too much effort. This exhaustion may result in the respiration rate not being very increased; the muscles are not able to keep up.”
Thus, a foal might give few clues to being ill. He might merely be too quiet, easier than normal to handle, or lacking energy. She tells clients that if a foal is too easy to catch, there is something wrong, and they should have a veterinarian look at the foal.
“Sometimes the foal will be panting, like a dog,” says Costa. This might be due to hot weather, since foals rely on air exchange and lung dissipation of heat (more than adults do) as well as sweating, but panting can also be a sign of pneumonia. If a foal is putting a lot of effort into breathing, he might be reluctant to lie down because it’s easier to breathe (less pressure on the lungs) while standing.
In the older foal, fever and respiratory signs are more typical of pneumonia. “The foal might not want to nurse or eat, and this would be a clue to take his temperature,” says Barr. “He may or may not have nasal discharge. You’re more apt to notice depression and the foal being off feed.”
One of the earliest signs might be that the mare has a full udder.
“If you notice anything unusual, have your vet look at the foal as soon as possible to listen to the lungs and do bloodwork,” says Barr. “The veterinarian might also do an ultrasound or a transtracheal wash to get fluid for a culture.”
“To obtain fluid to culture, we put a plastic tube down the trachea, put in some saline solution, and then aspirate it back out to get the sample,” explains Barr. “We also look at the fluid under the microscope.”
A veterinarian can look at this sample right after the fluid is aspirated from the foal, whereas a culture takes a couple days to grow–and you don’t want to wait that long to start treatment.
“Sometimes you don’t see anything on the slide, but it never hurts to look (for evidence of pneumonia),” says Barr. “Based on the size or shape of bacteria seen on the slide, we can recommend a certain type of antibiotic.” This decision would be confirmed or changed later, depending on results of the culture.
Pneumonia can progress very rapidly in a young foal–resulting in death within a few hours. The “wait and see” approach (as is often taken with adult horses) often leads to treatment being given too late, says Johnson.
“Most often we start with a broad- spectrum antibiotic such as penicillin and Gentocin (gentamicin),” explains Barr. “We also use chloramphenicol, given orally, especially if it’s a strep or gram-negative organism. If we suspect a Rhodococcus, we usually use azithromycin and rifampin, which are both given orally. Penicillin and Gentocin are injectable.”
Oral preparations come in pills or paste. If Barr prescribes a pill, she tells clients to grind it up and mix it with a little water so it can be squirted into the back of the foal’s mouth. A little corn syrup (such as Karo) can be added to make it better tasting.
“If the foal is having trouble breathing, I may administer a bronchodilator (such as Ventipulmin) to open the airways,” says Barr. Sometimes she keeps these foals on a little Banamine (flunixin meglumine) to reduce fever and inflammation. This will also make the foal feel better and thus encourage him to nurse.
If the foal is not nursing, he should be given fluid and nourishment. “This is usually done by IV (intravenously),” says Barr. “If he’s that sick, I don’t like to tube him because you don’t want to create more stress. The foal is usually put into an air-conditioned stall to keep him cooler, and fluid is administered intravenously.”
Johnson adds, “You also need to make sure the calorie balance is positive.” The foal can be fed by stomach tube (milking the mare and administering the milk via tube) or IV feedings.
A newborn with serious pneumonia might need oxygen, with clinics setting up a ventilator and endotracheal tube to breathe for him, says Johnson.
If the foal did not get enough antibodies at birth and has developed infection because of that lack, Johnson recommends a plasma transfusion, along with antibiotics.
Any kind of stress can make a foal vulnerable to respiratory infections. To help prevent pneumonia, minimize stress and make sure foals have a clean environment, free of dust and ammonia.
“Even dust in the paddock, such as around a gate or waterer–wherever horses are always moving–can irritate the lungs, says Barr. “Putting too many foals outside in a small lot can cause stress as well as stirring up dust.”
Foals are vulnerable at three to six months of age when they are losing their maternal antibodies from colostrum and trying to build their own immune systems. Other risky times are when foals come into contact with strange horses.
“If horses are always moving in and out of the barn or farm, foals may be exposed to viruses that might set them up for pneumonia,” says Barr. “If you have horses going and coming, in and out to shows, and so on, try to keep the foals in a different area or at one end of the barn and the other horses at the other end. Also, try to have just one person take care of the mares and foals who doesn’t have much involvement with the horses that are going in and out.
“The other important thing is to vaccinate each mare prior to foaling, so she has strong maternal antibodies, and keep the mare and foal on a good deworming program,” says Barr. “Anything you can do to add to the total health picture is important. Foals should be dewormed with a mild dewormer like fenbendazole starting at about four to six weeks of age.”
Checking immunoglobulin levels in the newborn foal within 24 hours of birth is also important. “If these levels are unsatisfactory, consider giving a plasma transfusion and putting the foal on antibiotics,” advises Johnson.
There are many things that can trigger an episode of pneumonia in foals, and you might not notice overt clinical signs until the foal is very sick. Because of that, take precautions to help the foal stay healthy.
Have the mare vaccinated properly throughout pregnancy, make sure the foal receives adequate colostrum in the first 24 hours of life, and avoid stress and exposure to “new” horses traveling on and off the farm. Also, deworm the foal appropriately, and most of all, keep an observant eye on him for any signs that he “just isn’t right.”
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