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Preventing Respiratory Infections in Young Horses: SupplementsBy Kentucky Equine Research Staff · May 10, 2016

Anyone spending time in the breeding sector of the equine industry quickly appreciates the importance of colostrum for neonates. Foals deprived of their dam’s first milk, or a suitable alternative, quickly develop life-threatening infections and all too frequently succumb to illness.

Supplementation with the antioxidant vitamin E will help support the immune system and guard against oxidative damage. Kentucky Equine Research (KER) offers two vitamin E products, Nano•E and Preserve PS (Preserve in Australia), that support immune function in young horses.

According to a recent study*, the benefits of colostrum reach far beyond supporting a newborn foal’s immune system. In fact, supplementing the diets of young horses with cow colostrum helps combat respiratory tract infections that negatively impact health and athletic training.

“Colostrum not only contains infection-fighting proteins called immunoglobulins but also a variety of other proteins and ingredients, like equine milk oligosaccharides, that help boost the immune system,” explained Kathleen Crandell, Ph.D., an equine nutritionist for Kentucky Equine Research (KER).

Dietary supplementation with bovine colostrum for preventing upper respiratory tract infections in children and human athletes has become increasingly popular. Considering that upper respiratory tract infections are common in young horses less than two years of age and contribute to missed training days, a nutritional supplement capable of preventing respiratory disease would be welcomed by racehorse trainers.

To determine if a bovine colostrum supplement, which also contained other ingredients believed to support immune function (mannan oligosaccharides, zinc, vitamins A, C, and E), would be beneficial to young horses, it was offered to Thoroughbred yearlings residing on two farms in central Kentucky. Of the 109 yearlings included in the study, half were supplemented with 50 g of a bovine colostrum supplement top-dressed on feed once daily or offered a placebo for 22 weeks. Important findings included:

  • The group of yearlings supplemented with bovine colostrum, overall, exhibited signs of respiratory disease less than a quarter of the study period.
  • As a whole, yearlings that were not supplemented with bovine colostrum had respiratory disease for one-third of the time.
  • The average duration of respiratory disease was reduced by over 50% in supplemented yearlings.

“Together, these data support the daily use of a bovine colostrum-based product containing other immune modulators to prevent and shorten the impact of respiratory disease in young horses,” summarized Crandell.

Management also plays an important role in protecting young horses from respiratory pathogens such as equine herpesvirus-1 and 4, equine influenza virus, and S. equi. Protective vaccinations, good stable hygiene, and excellent barn and trailer ventilation are important to support and reduce stress on immune systems. Quarantining newly arriving horses, grouping pasturemates by age, and isolating any horse that shows signs of disease are all helpful in reducing the spread of respiratory and other infections.

*Fenger, C.K., T. Tobin, P.J. Casey, et al. Enhanced bovine colostrum supplementation shortens the duration of respiratory disease in Thoroughbred yearlings. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science. In press.