jockey on racehorse Credit: David Landry

Airway disease in racehorses more prevalent than thought

University of Guelph researchers examined lung tissue from 95 racehorses that had actively raced or trained before their deaths and found that a majority had inflammatory airway disease.

Racehorses need to breathe well to run their best, but inflammatory airway disease (IAD) can rob them of their stamina. New research in the Ontario Veterinary College (OVC) at the University of Guelph shows that IAD is much more common than previously thought.

"We looked microscopically at the lung tissue of horses that died during or just after races and quantified the inflammatory cells within their airways," professor Luis Arroyo with the OVC department of clinical studies said. "We expected to find that the majority of the animals would have normal airways, with only a small number actually affected with the disease, but that was not the case."

Along with graduate student Federika ter Woort and pathobiology professor Jeff Caswell, Arroyo discovered that most of the horses had some degree of IAD, with mild to severe airway changes.

Previous research suggested that the disease occurs in up to half of equine athletes, the announcement said.

"The disease was known to be common in racehorses, but not as widespread as this study reveals," Caswell said. "The findings suggest that IAD does not result from unique exposure of an affected horse to the stimulus that causes the disease, but, rather, the research suggests that all racehorses may be exposed, with inflammation of the airways experienced by many."

With results published in the American Journal of Veterinary Research, the study examined lung tissue from 95 deceased racehorses, including thoroughbreds, standardbreds and quarterhorses that had actively raced or trained before their deaths.

This was the first study to assess inflammation on a tissue level and the first to discover airway inflammation in horses not specifically selected for poor performance.

"None of the deceased horses showed obvious signs of airway inflammation in their final three races," Arroyo said. "The research shows that inflammation is always prevalent in racehorses, even those that may or may not have respiratory signs."

Unlike equine asthma in older horses, IAD causes no observable symptoms at rest -- only during exercise. It most readily shows itself in poor race times, Caswell explained.

Possible causes of IAD include recurrent pulmonary stress, deep inhalation of dust, atmospheric pollutants and persistent respiratory viral infections. Young horses have higher risk of exposure to these factors because of frequent transport, intense exercise and increased time spent in stables, OVC said.

Little is known about how IAD changes an affected horse's lungs, Arroyo added.

"At this stage, the findings are mainly relevant to understanding the nature of the disease and how it develops. Until now, there was no knowledge about a potential correlation between the classification of the inflammatory cells in the airways and the lung tissues."

The Ontario Racing Commission requires a mandatory autopsy when a horse dies in or soon after a race. That means experts know a lot about what causes racehorses to die. Since IAD is not fatal, it had not been closely examined until now, Arroyo said.

"This project gives important information regarding the health status of the performing horse. Developing a better understanding of IAD could lead to better health in horses and a more competitive horse racing industry."

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