What is shipping fever?
Shipping fever is an infection that horses can get from traveling, in a trailer or airplane. It’s typically seen in horses that have travelled over 4 hours or so, but as we all know horses don’t always fit the mold! Shipping fever is a bacterial infection of the lungs and pleural space around the lungs, aka pleuropneumonia.
How do horses catch shipping fever? Well, in the trailer or plane, a horse is typically tied with his head up, often for hours on end. (This article has some tips on long distance travels with horses) Add to that dusty conditions, perhaps urine and/or manure in the box or trailer, poor ventilation, perhaps some extreme temps, dehydration and decreased hay intake, and of course travel stress and you have a recipe for illness.
The high head position in a trailer or plane creates a situation in which the horse can’t clear mucus from his respiratory system. This makes a wonderful breeding ground for a bacterial infection - especially if you have other stressors involved.
So how can you help prevent this? You have a few options, and it’s best to attack from all angles to keep your horse healthy. Help to keep your horse hydrated. Use wet hay in your hay nets, and offer water at every rest stop you take. You may also talk with your Veterinarian about giving IV fluids before a trip.
Have adequate ventilation in the trailer, but be sure it’s safe ventilation. If you have windows, please use screens so that your horse’s eyes are protected from debris and road dust.
Stop frequently and for longer periods of time if you can. If you can safely remove any manure and urine from the trailer, go for it. Consider lining your trailer with recycled cardboard or paper bedding, it’s much less dusty than shavings. It’s generally unsafe to go without shavings, manure and urine on mats or a wood floor can be slippery and can cause your horse to fall.
If you have options of how your horse will travel, a loose box is best if that is appropriate for your horse. Slant loads and rigs where your horse faces backwards are also the best alternatives for trailer positioning, but this doesn't mean putting your horse in backwards in a two horse straight!
You will need to monitor your horse very closely for a few days after your travels. Signs of shipping fever include depression, decreased appetite, cough, runny nose, shallow breath, and a fever. I can’t stress this enough - many horses will appear to be totally healthy, even with a fever of 102 or more. Don’t wait for signs of shipping fever - take his temperature and vitals at least twice daily for a few days. Isolation procedures and a call to your Veterinarian are in order if you suspect shipping fever.