Sleep Apnea Tool Could Help Foals Breathe Better

While it’s not yet commercially available, vets recently constructed and tested a CPAP machine for equine neonates.
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Several hours into life, a foal is still trying to catch his breath. The veterinarian can only do so much on the farm to support this tiny patient and, alas, the closest equine hospital with a ventilator and around-the-clock monitoring is many hours away. Veterinarians and horse owners living in remote regions—or, simply, far from a large referral center—are no strangers to such logistical challenges. So one research group has been hard at work finding a way to support neonatal respiratory cases on the farm by adapting a tool borrowed from human medicine.

While it’s not yet commercially available, Australian veterinarians recently constructed and tested a CPAP, or continuous positive airway pressure, machine to help equine neonates breathe better. At the 2015 American Association of Equine Practitioners’ Convention, held Dec. 5-9 in Las Vegas, Rosemary McKean, BVetBio/BVSc (Hons. 1), described how she and colleagues created the system using a human sleep apnea mask. McKean is a veterinarian at Moorong Veterinary Clinic, in Wagga Wagga, New South Wales.

McKean explained that respiratory disease is common and potentially fatal in foals. Ventilators—machines designed to mechanically move breathable air into and out of the lungs—are available in some clinics, but many veterinarians in the field and even in smaller clinics don’t have access to such machines. Human doctors regularly use CPAP machines on their patients, but there’s little literature on their use in horses and other animals, she said.

Simply put, CPAP uses mild air pressure to keep the airways open. McKean said it can help prevent airway collapse, decrease breathing effort, increase oxygenation, reduce lung inflammation, and eliminate the risk of complications from intubation (which isn’t required with CPAP use). She said veterinarians might be able to use CPAP to treat foals with conditions such as respiratory failure, increased breathing effort, respiratory distress at birth, and more

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Erica Larson, former news editor for The Horse, holds a degree in journalism with an external specialty in equine science from Michigan State University in East Lansing. A Massachusetts native, she grew up in the saddle and has dabbled in a variety of disciplines including foxhunting, saddle seat, and mounted games. Currently, Erica competes in eventing with her OTTB, Dorado.

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