Where There’s Smoke…

Smoke inhalation can cause unforeseen damage to horse’s lungs.

“Starlight” was enjoying the good life in Southern California until wildfire swept through the county where she and her owner lived. With little warning, fire engulfed the landscape around the barn where Starlight and 12 other horses were housed. Sprinklers and hoses were turned on to protect the barn from the encroaching flames as the horses were evacuated.

Starlight was taken to Alamo Pintado, a 24-hour intensive care unit, where Dr. Phoebe Smith examined her about eight hours after the mare had been evacuated. In the initial physical exam, Dr. Smith found that Starlight was moderately dehydrated, had an elevated respiratory rate, an elevated heart rate, nasal discharge, a frequent cough and pronounced lethargy.

“It appeared that she was using all of her available energy for breathing,” Dr. Smith says. “An X-ray of her lungs suggested that fluid had accumulated inside the lungs. We started giving her oxygen by securing a small tube inside her nose and attaching a length of oxygen tubing to her mane, and gave her steroids to help with the fluid in her lungs. We also put her on IV fluids to correct the dehydration. Starlight remained in critical care overnight, eating very little and continuing to take rapid, shallow breaths.”

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Starlight’s symptoms – rapid breathing, frequent coughing, nasal discharge – are all symptoms of smoke inhalation. The frequent wildfires in Southern California create unhealthy air quality for humans and animals alike. Starlight’s case history from 2003 sheds some light on what horse owners can look for with regard to symptoms of smoke inhalation.

Smoke is a mixture of heated particles and gases, according to an article on Many factors – such as the substances being burned and the amount of oxygen available – can change the chemical makeup of smoke, but toxic chemicals such as sulfur dioxide, ammonia, hydrogen cyanide and hydrogen sulfide are commonly found in smoke.

By Day 2 of hospitalization, Starlight showed interest in hay, and her coughing decreased slightly.

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By Day 5, her respiratory rate was normal, and Dr. Smith took her off oxygen therapy. Starlight was fed hay on the ground to encourage drainage of the secretions that resulted from damage to the lining of the respiratory tract. Dust was minimized in her stall by dampening her shavings with water.

On Day 6, Starlight developed a fever.

“Ultrasound examination of her lungs revealed areas of consolidation, or nonfunctional lung tissue.” Dr. Smith says. “We collected fluid from the airways for a bacterial culture, which revealed that Starlight had pneumonia. So, we put her on IV antibiotics.”

Starlight’s fever subsided in 48 hours.

Starlight’s owner saw glimpses of her formerly playful horse while visiting on Day 11. From that time forward, Starlight seemed to perk up, and a recheck ultrasound of her lungs on Day 13 showed marked improvement in the pneumonia. Coughing became less frequent, and Starlight’s appetite improved dramatically over the following four days.

With much ado from the entire clinic staff, Starlight was discharged on Day 17. She was sent home with a three-week supply of oral antibiotics.

“We also recommended that Starlight’s owner provide a low-dust environment for her recuperation period,” Dr. Smith says. “Starlight’s regular attending veterinarian rechecked her weekly for the next month.”

Starlight rested for eight weeks.

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“The respiratory tract requires weeks to months to heal after a significant insult such as smoke inhalation,” Dr. Smith says. “After all the time, effort and money put toward Starlight’s recovery, both her owner and I felt that a long recuperation period was warranted.”

A little more than six months after Starlight was admitted for respiratory distress, her owner called Dr. Smith to report that the mare was back to her exuberant self and showed no lasting effects of the smoke inhalation that had endangered her life.