Shipping Fever: The Dos And Don’ts Of Prevention - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report

Shipping Fever: The Dos And Don’ts Of Prevention

The stress of travel is tough on a horse. Dozens of studies confirm that a horse's immune system becomes depressed during transport, so it's understandable many shipped horses develop respiratory disease. Horsemen generally lump everything from a case of the snots with a mild fever to life-threatening pleuropneumonia with a high fever under a term borrowed from the livestock industry: “shipping fever.”

When horses are commingled with others in a central location, such as a sale grounds or a competition venue, the threat of shipping fever increases. A horse can be exposed to organisms carried there by other horses that are not in its home environment, and to which it hasn't developed immunity. Add to this the stress of the sale or competition and the stress of shipping, and you have a scenario that depresses the horse's immune system, leaving it vulnerable to disease.

Dr. Jonathan Foreman, professor of internal medicine at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana-Champaign, offered this advice for avoiding shipping fever:

“The key is to start with a healthy horse and make sure you monitor them when they get to the other end,” he said. “Watch them like a hawk, so if they do get sick, you can be on it right away.”


Foreman suggested a good way to help a horse fight off shipping fever is to administer an immune booster five to seven days before it is scheduled to travel.

“By stimulating them with one of these products, you're actually trying to stir up the horse's immune system and get it to act sooner so that it sees early invaders earlier and fights them off before it becomes a severe form of infection that may be more difficult to get rid of,” he said.

What a horseman should not do is administer a prophylactic antibiotic before shipping. Instead of helping the horse fight off disease, a single dose of an antibiotic will kill off weaker strains of bacteria and allow stronger ones to flourish, essentially increasing the potential for contracting a serious infection.

Foreman explained that most of these respiratory infections begin as viruses, against which antibiotics are not effective. The viral infection decreases the horse's immune response, which allows secondary infections by bacteria, such as pleuropneumonia, to set in. By the time they do, the single dose of prophylactic antibiotics is no longer present in the horse's body to fight the bacteria.

A Japanese study in 2017 claimed administration of the antibiotic enrofloxacin just before shipping is an effective way to prevent transportation-associated fever in adult Thoroughbred racehorses. For horses, enrofloxacin is marketed as Baytril; in humans, it is known by various brand names, including Cipro and Levaquin.

“Despite this paper, most experts agree that it is not recommended to give prophylactic antibiotics before transport,” said Foreman. “The FEI [Fédération Équestre Internationale] booklet, Recommendations to Horse Owners and Their Representatives on the Transport of Horses, specifically states that owners should avoid unnecessary medication and includes antibiotics in that category.”

Health certificate

Horses being transported need a negative Coggins test (for equine infectious anemia) and a current Certificate of Veterinary Inspection (CVI). The typical length of time a health certificate is legally valid is 30 to 60 days, depending on the regulations of the issuing state and the purpose for which it is issued. Individual venues, such as sales, shows, races, trail rides, etc., may require a shorter time period.

Foreman warned horsemen not to presume a horse is healthy based solely on a valid health certificate.

“Health certificates are a real issue,” Foreman said. “You could generate a health certificate five days earlier and have a completely legal health certificate, but that may not reflect the horse's actual health the day it gets on the van.”

He emphasized it is imperative for horsemen to take every horse's temperature in the hours before it ships to assure only healthy horses are transported — no exceptions. One sick horse on a van or trailer could infect all the others riding with it, plus spread disease at their destination(s).

Horsemen should continue to take the horse's temperature twice a day for at least a week after the horse arrives at its destination so any illness it may have picked up before or during the trip can be caught early and treated.

Curt Lange, spokesman for Brook Ledge, said its drivers regularly check on horses while they are en route, and some may take the temperature of a horse that has raised concern.

“If a horse appears to be in distress, the driver will usually try to locate, with the help of dispatch, a veterinarian in their vicinity,” he said.

Ensure the horse is well-hydrated before it gets on the van or trailer. Most horses expected to be hauled only two to three hours can travel cross-tied in a standing stall. A horse traveling a distance should be in a box stall with its head free so it can lower it to allow mucus and particulates to drain from its nostrils, avoiding respiratory illness.

After Arrival

New arrivals should be quarantined for two weeks to prevent the possible spread of disease, even if they are not showing any symptoms of illness. While the horse is in quarantine, stable help should not share its tack, grooming supplies, or stable equipment with other horses.

Foreman recommended allowing a horse to relax for two or three days after it arrives at its destination. Athletic demands will put added stress on the animal's already challenged immune system and can prolong its susceptibility to illness.

“Hand-walking or walking on the horse's back is fine, but I wouldn't go galloping him right away,” he said. “Ideally, don't change his feed, and make sure the horse is drinking enough. I think really good monitoring, more than anything, is the absolute key.”

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