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Wildfire Smoke and Horses

As smoke from Canada's raging wildfires continues to drift across Wisconsin, unhealthy air containing tiny particulates may cause health problems for your horse.

Wildfire smoke carries particulate matter, a tiny but dangerous pollutant that can travel deep into lung tissue and enter the bloodstream when inhaled, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The effects of wildfire smoke on horses are similar to effects on humans: irritation of the eyes and respiratory tract, aggravation of conditions like heaves (recurrent airway obstruction), and reduced lung function and difficulty breathing.

Your horse's immune system can also be altered by particulates which can reduce the ability of your horse's lungs to remove foreign materials (such as pollen and bacteria) which your horse may normally be exposed to.

Your horse should be examined by a veterinarian if you note any of the following:

* Your horse's respiratory rate is consistently greater than 30 breaths/minute at rest. Normal respiratory rate at rest should be 12-24 breaths/minute.

* Your horse's nostrils have obvious flaring.

* There are obvious signs of increased effort of breathing when you watch your horse’s abdomen and rib cage.

* Your horse is experiencing repetitive or deep coughing or abnormal nasal discharge.

How to Help Your Horse During Wildfire Smoke Events

1. Limit your horse's exercise when air quality is poor. Engaging in activities that increase the airflow in and out of the lungs can trigger a narrowing of the small airways in your horse's lungs (bronchoconstriction).

2. Provide plenty of fresh water close to where your horse eats. Having water close to the feeder may increase water consumption. Water keeps the airways moist and facilitates the clearance of inhaled particulate matter. This means the windpipe (trachea), large airways (bronchi), and small airways (bronchioles) can more easily move the particulate material breathed in with the smoke. Dry airways make particulate matter stay in the lung and air passages.

3. Feed dust-free hay or soak your horse's hay before feeding to limit dust exposure. This may help to reduce the particles in the dust such as mold, fungi, pollens, and bacteria that may be difficult for your horse to clear from the lungs.

4. If your horse is coughing or having difficulty breathing, contact your veterinarian. She can help determine if your horse's airway is reacting to the wildfire smoke or if your horse has a bacterial infection like bronchitis or pneumonia. If your horse has a history of heaves or recurrent airway problems, there is a greater risk of secondary problems such as bacterial pneumonia.

5. Talk to your vet about how much time it will take your horse's airway to recover from the effects of the wildfire smoke. Airway damage resulting from wildfire smoke may take 4-6 weeks to heal. She may advise you to give your horse that amount of time off after the air quality returns to normal. Exercising too soon may aggravate the condition, delay the healing process, and compromise your horse’s performance for many weeks or months.

6. Air quality index (AQI) is used to gauge exercise/athlete event recommendations for human athletes. It may be reasonable to use those for equine athletes, as well. The National Collegiate Athletic Association lists the following recommendations on their website: “Specifically, schools should consider removing sensitive athletes from outdoor practice or competition venues at an AQI over 100. At AQIs of over 150, all athletes should be closely monitored. All athletes should be removed from outdoor practice or competition venues at AQIs of 200 or above.” Most weather apps are providing the AQI for local areas regularly now.

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