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Maximizing Benefits of Inhaled Medications for HorsesBy Kentucky Equine Research Staff · April 20, 2017

Did you see ever see the first equine inhalers? Because the inhalers were large and bulky, many people wondered what horse would possibly tolerate the awkward contraptions. Wouldn’t it just be better, they thought, to keep giving medications the old-fashioned way? Once you read the latest research on inhaled medications and their benefits in horses, those naysayers might change their tune. Consider the following:

  • Inhaled medications provide immediate or rapid relief of airway-related disease symptoms. This includes horses suffering full-blown heaves, younger horses with the common but often frustrating inflammatory airway disease, as well as the remaining spectrum of respiratory disorders captured by the term “equine asthma.”
  • Inhaled drugs do not typically enter systemic circulation. Instead, they exert their effect locally, in the lungs, to treat disease.
  • Lack of marked systemic absorption helps minimize side effects associated with drug administration, including colic, increased heart rate, tremors, sweating, anxiety, and cardiac arrhythmia.
  • Finally, inhaled drugs delivered directly to the target site means maximal drug concentrations can safely be achieved. Inhaled drugs aren’t broken down in the gut or circulation before reaching the target site like some orally administered medications. Further, inhaled medications do not disrupt the intestinal microflora, potentially causing diarrhea.

Examples of medications amenable to inhalation therapy include mucolytic drugs that break down mucus in the airways (acetylcysteine), bronchodilators to increase the diameter of the airways (albuterol), and anti-inflammatory corticosteroids (fluticasone). Some antibiotics can be administered via inhaled route, like ceftiofur, avoiding the need for painful daily intramuscular injections when respiratory tract infections occur.

Perhaps one of the greatest take-home messages from this study was the importance of management in horses with heaves. The researchers specifically stated, “In airway disease, such as mild, moderate, and severe equine asthma syndromes, identifying and controlling environmental breathable particulates, including organic and inorganic dust, mold, and pollen, are critical in reducing the exacerbation of disease. In fact, environmental and feeding management are even more important than medical therapy in the treatment of horses with airway disease.”

Hay soaking, avoiding dusty feeds and bedding, turning horses out as much as possible especially when mucking stalls, and other important techniques are all ways to help keep airways healthy,” reminded Kathleen Crandell, Ph.D., a nutritionist for Kentucky Equine Research (KER).

She added, “Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation also improves respiratory healthy by decreasing inflammation and coughing. EO•3 supplies a potent marine-derived oil rich in omega-3 fatty acids, including DHA and EPA, that is top-dressed onto the feed.”

*Cha, M.L., and L.R. Costa. 2017. Inhalation therapy in horses. Veterinary Clinics of North America. Equine Practice. 33(1):29-46.