If your horse has had an illness such as colic or pneumonia or any other severe infection, he or she may be at risk of developing a very serious inflammatory response known as endotoxemia. This condition can cause failure and collapse of your horse’s circulatory system and vital organs, so it’s nothing to play around with. This systemic disorder is caused by the body’s response to gram-negative bacteria.
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How Can You Tell If Your Horse Has Developed Endotoxemia?
After your horse has suffered a serious illness, you should watch him or her very closely. Look for these symptoms which may indicate the development of endotoxemia:
- Your horse’s gum line may become dark red or purple, especially along the line of the teeth.
- Your horse’s respiratory rate and heart rate may be unusually high.
- You may notice that your horse seems to be in a great deal of pain.
- Your horse may experience a general malaise or depression.
- Your horse’s intestinal functions may shut down.
- Your horse may exhibit inexplicable sweating.
- Your horse may be chronically dehydrated.
- Your horse may run a high fever.
What Causes Endotoxemia?
Endotoxemia is the result of gram-negative bacteria moving from the horse’s intestines to its bloodstream. This will cause systemic toxic conditions or endotoxemia.
Just as with all animals, a horse’s intestinal tract is filled with a wide variety of microorganisms. Healthy horses have defensive intestinal microbes that block the development of pathogenic bacteria.
Gram-negative bacteria in the right amounts are necessary in your horse’s digestive tract. These are the bacteria that naturally break down high-fiber feed such as hay. When these bacteria reproduce, they release a portion of the cell wall.
The portion of the cell wall released into the system is the endotoxin. In a healthy horse, this bacteria does not move outside of the bowel.
There is an intestinal barrier containing antibodies, enzymes, and epithelial cells that protect the rest of the body from contact with endotoxins.
Even if very small amounts of endotoxins make their way past to mucosal membrane, the liver acts as a backup. Its immune cells go to work to eliminate this contaminant.
If this natural defense is not working, and gram-negative bacteria die off in large numbers, endotoxins can then enter the system in large numbers. This can cause endotoxemia.
These endotoxins can also be picked up within the horses environment. For example, horse manure is filled with endotoxins.
If your horse lives inside a stable, he is at risk for breathing in these contaminants. If your horse breathes in dust that is loaded with gram-negative bacteria, he is at great risk of inflammation of his airway.
How Will Your Vet Diagnose Endotoxemia?
If your horse begins exhibiting any of the listed symptoms, it is cause for concern. You should call your vet right away for a full physical exam.
Your vet may need to call for a complete blood count (CBC). He or she may also order an arterial blood gas analysis.
If your horse is experiencing endotoxemia, the CBC will reveal neutropenia and leukopenia in the blood. The arterial blood gas analysis will reveal indications of metabolic acidosis and also arterial hypoxemia.
These are very serious conditions that can get out of hand very rapidly. This why it is extremely important that you contact your vet right away if your horse exhibits any of the symptoms of endotoxemia.
This is especially true if your horse has recently experienced a health challenge such as colic.
How Do You Treat Endotoxemia?
Your vet may call for administration of NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs). Some examples are flunixin meglumine or phenylbutazone.
These drugs don’t resolve cell damage, but they do reduce inflammation and this facilitates healing.
Your vet will also probably call for administration of intravenous fluids to support this treatment and help prevent dehydration.
Your vet is also sure to take steps to help keep endotoxins from circulating throughout your horse’s system. This will involve reducing and neutralizing inflammation and providing supportive care.
Your vet may also reevaluate the primary disease that is causing the endotoxemia. Aggressive treatment of this root cause will naturally reduce the problem and may help prevent its recurrence.
If your horse has been struggling with a gastrointestinal tract disease, your vet may recommend some of these treatments:
- If your horse has eaten too much grain, your vet may recommend administering mineral oil.
- You may need to provide your horse with supportive care for inflammatory bowel disease.
- The ischemic bowel may need to be removed.
To neutralize endotoxins, your vet might administer intravenous plasma or a hyperimmune serum. These treatments can be very effective if endotoxins have not yet entered your horse’s bloodstream.
Another way of neutralizing endotoxins is to administer a cationic polypeptide antibiotic called Polymyxin B. As a catalyst, dimethylsulfoxide (DMSO) can be very helpful in speeding delivery of anti-inflammatory medications. DMSO also has value as an anti-inflammatory substance on its own.
If your horse has endotoxemia, your vet will do all that he or she can to provide cardiovascular support and limit inflammation. These steps must be taken very quickly for best results.
Your vet will also make recommendations for ongoing care, and it is very important that you follow them to the letter even if your horse seems to have recovered fully.
Is It Possible To Prevent Endotoxemia?
Of course, the best way of dealing with endotoxemia is to avoid it altogether. There are many steps that you can take to help your horse maintain a healthy gastrointestinal tract. Follow these 6 smart tips:
- Always take your horse out of the stall when you are cleaning and moving manure around. This will help prevent your horse inhaling endotoxins.
- Remember that horses are grazing animals and can maintain a healthier digestive system by consuming many small meals throughout the day rather than eating one or two large meals a day.
- Do not make sudden feed changes. Add or reduce ingredients and feed gradually over a period of at least two weeks.
- Be sure your horses getting plenty of dietary fiber. He or she should have free access to high-quality hay at all times.
- If your horse is subject to heaves, be sure to soak or steam his hay thoroughly and feed it right away.
- If your horse becomes ill, don’t hesitate. Call your vet right away and address any illness your horse may have. Endotoxins thrive in horses who are not in optimum health.
Understanding your horse’s digestive system will help you create an appropriate plan to help keep your horse’s gastrointestinal system strong and healthy to avoid endotoxemia.
The Equine Digestive System
Frequently Asked Questions
This sort of super bacteria resists many different types of drugs. Additionally, these types of bacteria are quite adept at developing resistance to new treatments. As they reproduce, they pass along their strengths and abilities allowing other sorts of bacteria to develop resistance to a wide variety of drugs.
No, gram positive bacteria typically cause more harm but are easier to defeat with anti-biotics. Gram negative bacteria are more persistent and more adaptable in resisting treatment.
On surfaces, many types of gram negative bacteria can survive for months. This makes it much more likely that they will be passed on from one horse to another through contact with feed and water buckets, fence rails, trailer and stall walls, etc. When the bacterial cell walls begin to break down, endotoxins are released.
No, this sort of bacteria is all around us in any setting where living beings are present. It’s a necessary part of survival on earth. The best defense against being made ill by its presence is maintaining good hygiene and a strong immune system.
Keep your horse’s living quarters clean. Feed a full and balanced diet consisting mostly of clean hay and including the right amount of protein for your horse’s age and activity level. Be sure your horse’s feed contains generous amounts of vitamins A, C and E, as well as minerals such as copper and zinc. If your horse only gets a token amount of feed and eats mostly hay and grass, consider providing a good vitamin and mineral supplement. Keep your horse’s vaccines up-to-date.