Rural veterinary practice
Live cover breeding
Delivery of a foal
Sleepy foal disease
6. Broken wind (heaves)
Sint Michielsgestel is on the southern end of the praxis. It is a lovely village situated along the banks of the river Dommel with a golf course and a few old estates. But little remains of the former 'Gestel', as the village is referred to by its original inhabitants, and of its agricultural nature. It has become a municipality of commuters. The only farmers left can be found on the edge of the village. But it does have a number of horse owners.
The outdoors of Brabant
I have had a call concerning a coughing horse. Driving deeper into the park along the clinker paving of the golf course past various holes and the clubhouse the road becomes unpaved and the age of the trees impressive. It is even quiet: the only sound is the faraway hum of traffic on the freeway. The white estate with a thatched roof lies in a curve of the river Dommel. First fencing, then a gate with a sign that warns visitors of the presence of security dogs. There is a button next to the sign. It triggers a bell in the house. The gate is unlocked then and I continue driving along meadows with tall trees. The stable is to the left of the dwelling. The owner exits the house with two little dogs, Jack Russels. He is an elderly gentleman, almost eighty. The security dogs are nowhere to be seen. His handshake is friendly. I grab my boots and a clean dustcoat from my car.
I am familiar with the case history of this horse: I have been here before because the mare had previously a persistent cough and had shown signs of shortness of breath. As we stand around talking for a few minutes, the mare grows impatient and starts to kick the door: she wants our attention and she is coughing. She pokes her head over the door and looks at the boss. He strokes her gently across the bridge of her nose. The missus rode the horse in the past, but the mare may now spend her days in peace and quiet. Unfortunately, she is broken-winded. In medical terms, she is suffering from COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease). She was previously treated for the illness with a number of medications intended to dissolve the mucous in the airways and to activate the cilia in de bronchi to make it easier to cough up mucous. Moreover, she was given antibiotics. These medications enabled the mare to breathe more easily. But now the condition has returned in all its severity and the owner would like for her to be treated again.
fresh air in the stable
The coughing is not that forceful; it sounds almost polite. And there is no snot in the horse’s nose: the cough is ‘stuck’ and is not productive. The abdominal muscles contract forcefully as the animal exhales: that is referred to as heaving. The force is such that the anus is pressed backward with each breath. This is noticeable upon inserting the thermometer. The mare is experiencing shortness of breath. Because of the mucous in the airways, a variety of sounds is heard when listening to the lungs. Moreover, my stethoscope picks up the rustle of emphysema. These are small air bubbles inside the chest cavity, but outside the lungs. Thousands of alveoli have burst because they have been overfilled with air. It sounds contradictory: a shortness of breath due to too much air in the chest cavity. But the small air bubbles are not part of the gas exchange process. They are only in the way. The cause of the misery is in front of the horse in the rack: I pull a tuft of hay through the bars and a small cloud of dust emerges. This is what is constantly irritating the airways: hay dust.
Each time the mare pulls a tuft of hay from the rack, she also breathes in the dust that is released. Because the dust clouds right in front of her nose. The bales of hay are stacked up next to the stable. But there is no tub of water. Dusty hay needs to be shaken out and then submerged in water until no more air bubbles emerge. A simple watering can will not suffice. I had explained that extensively the last time I was here. But the owner, somewhat conscious of his guilt, now says that ‘Twilight’ was not ever fed in that way. She had punctually received all of her medication since my last visit, but she had since been fed the same dusty hay. And in the same way that people with COPD cannot heal if they continue to smoke, horses will continue to cough and experience a shortness of breath for as long as the irritation of the airways continues. The cause must be removed first, before the medication can do its thing. Hay dust actually consists of moulds that develop during storage if the grass was not sufficiently dried during the haymaking process. Ten days of uninterrupted sunshine is needed to come to good quality hay for horses. Even dew is undesired in that respect. And how often does that happen in the course of summer? Hay that is made here is therefore often ‘dusty’. Hay from the more southerly countries is often of a better quality in that respect. A better option is to not feed horse any hay at all, but rather silage. It contains fewer moulds and has a higher nutritional value because less leaf is lost during its making. But silage is cow feed. And you cannot expect a true-blue horse lover to give his horse cow feed!
Twilight was treated again, only without the antibiotics. She then showed improvement, but she did not really heal. I am back at the farm a year later to put the mare to sleep. She is severely short of breath. The mucous membranes have a dubious blue colour and the emphysema has continued to spread. It turns out she was not fed silage following my second visit either. The hay had to be finished first. But again, the hay had not been submerged in water before it was given to the horse. Strange?
The stable hand of this elderly owner is a true-blue horse lover. He grew up around horses and he knows exactly how they should be fed. At home, when he was growing up, his father always did the same thing. And those horses worked! From dawn to dusk. They never had a horse with heaves at their home, and they had been fed exactly like Twilight. So that could not possibly be the problem. And the coughing? Look, everyone coughs now and again, don’t they? The stable hand is an excellent and reliable helper. And what do you do if you are the owner and eighty years old? He is dependent of the man. It is easier for a true-blue horse lover to quit smoking than it is to change the diet of his horses.
© Leo Rogier Verberne