Asthma and obesity in horses: Is there a link?

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A horse at Texas A&M University. Statistics showing about half of all US horses are overweight or obese.
A horse at Texas A&M University. Statistics showing about half of all US horses are overweight or obese. © Dr Michelle Coleman

Obesity has been identified as an important risk factor for asthma in humans, and researchers in the US are working to identify if such a link exists in horses.

While some evidence suggests there is an association between the two in horses, it has not been fully explored. If a link is identified, the findings will help improve the understanding, diagnosis and management of asthma, especially in obese equine patients.

The research is being undertaken by researchers funded by the Morris Animal Foundation at Texas A&M University.

The main therapy to treat asthma is corticosteroids, but for obese horses, those come with a concern for complications, such as laminitis.

Dr Michelle Coleman, Assistant Professor of Large Animal Internal Medicine at Texas A&M, said veterinarians are faced with the concern of administration of steroids to a horse with asthma and end up with a life-threatening complication because of the therapy itself.

“We want to better understand the mechanism of asthma to help guide future studies looking at different therapies or ways to prevent disease.”

For their project, the team will study 60 horses, of any breed, from those brought into the Texas A&M Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital. Researchers will first assess the horses’ body conditions, identify if they are insulin dysregulated and define their state of asthma. This will be done by listening to their lungs, looking for nasal discharge and examining fluid samples from their lower airways.

The 60 chosen horses will be divided into four groups of 15: Obese and asthmatic, non-obese and asthmatic, obese and healthy, and non-obese and healthy. The team will then look for markers of inflammation, including cytokine levels (small proteins released by cells that illicit inflammation). In humans, the levels of cytokines differ between obese asthmatic vs. non-obese asthmatic people.

The second part of the study will examine the horses’ lung microbiota (population of resident bacteria), to see if there are any noteworthy differences in asthmatic horses with and without obesity.

Dr Janet Patterson-Kane, Chief Scientific Officer for the Morris Animal Foundation, said obesity and equine asthma were both significant problems for horse health and management.

“Knowing more about potentially significant associations between such important conditions has implications for tailoring prevention and treatment methods to individual animals,” she said.

“Most importantly, if this association exists, we might be able to identify horses that are at higher risk to help their owners prevent disease or at least intervene earlier.”

Equine asthma is one of the most common respiratory problems seen in horses, diagnosed in all breeds and reportedly affecting between 10% and 20% of adult horses. The disease has limited treatment options and leads to progressive breathing difficulty, severely impacting the quality of life for horses that suffer from it. Common symptoms include recurrent cough, labored breathing and exercise intolerance.

Obesity also is seen as one of the most important welfare issues in horses, with statistics showing about half of all US horses are overweight or obese.

Morris Animal Foundation has funded other studies looking at equine asthma. One pilot study found that giving horses magnesium intravenously during an asthma attack resulted in marked improvement in their breathing. Another found that latex could be among the allergens responsible for causing severe equine asthma.

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