NW Equine Performance in Wildfire Smoke

Editors note: Northwest Equine Performance in Mulino, Oregon, sent the following information to its clients in response to the wildfires and poor air quality in Oregon. The Horse has reprinted this letter with permission.

To help you manage your horse’s health during the Oregon wildfires we have gathered a variety of recommendations regarding respiratory support of the sport horse. Please keep in mind that each situation is different, and it’s important to work closely with your veterinary team to come up with the best plan for your horse.

A horse’s respiratory rate at rest should be between 12-­‐24 breaths per minute. You can watch their sides move in and out to count each breath. It is good to know your horse’s resting respiratory rate so you can watch for change in the coming weeks. Other signs of respiratory distress include nostril flaring, a persistent cough, abnormal nasal discharge, wheezing, or obvious increased respiratory effort. If you notice any of these symptoms in your horse or your horse’s resting respiratory rate changes to anything above 30 breaths per minute, please call your veterinarian. It can take up to 10-­‐14 days for smoke inhalation signs to show up.

Horses should not be exercising in an air quality index (AQI) greater than 200. Horses should not be doing anything much above walking at AQI of 151-­‐200. Horses with existing respiratory issues may be more sensitive and affected at even lower AQI levels.

The biggest concern in wildfire smoke is the particulate. These very small particles can reach the deep into the lungs and cause irritation. The lungs need time to recover from this irritation, which is why it is recommended to give horses time off post-smoke-inhalation. Recommendations for time off vary between an equal number of days off as number of days in an AQI above 200, or two weeks. For horses with more severe smoke exposure, the recovery time could be closer to four to six weeks. This time off timeline does not start until the air quality index (AQI) is below 200. During the time-off period, horses can be walking under tack.

Other things to do during smoke exposure include:

  • Providing plenty of fresh water—water helps keep the airway moist and facilitates clearance of particulate
  • Limiting dust exposure—soak hay, don’t drag arenas near horses, reduce sweeping/blowing aisle ways,

Increasing air flow using fans is okay, but you want to be sure you are moving the air through the barn, not just pushing the air into a closed area.

Supplements containing omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin C, and/or resveratrol are helpful during this time to decrease inflammation and provide antioxidants. Vitamin E is another antioxidant option, just make sure you get natural vitamin E and not synthetic.

Acupuncture can be a useful adjunctive therapy during this time of poor air quality and forced rest. Acupuncture has local and systemic effects on numerous biological systems (nervous, endocrine, immune, etc.), which can help support horses suffering from respiratory and musculoskeletal conditions.

Healthy horses exposed to wildfire smoke should not require nebulization, because they should be able to clear the particles themselves. Nebulizing pure saline could be useful in helping the horse clear particulate. Nebulizing any other medications is not recommended at this time unless under direct veterinary supervision. Nebulizing anything else that could potentially irritate the lungs is not recommended at this time.

Finally, monitor caloric intake and reduce the amount of grain/concentrates being fed while on rest. Match the diet to the activity level of the horse.