More on Stress and Its Effect on the Immune System
In another article, I discussed the effects of emotional, toxic, and nutritional stress on a horse’s immune system and offered suggestions on how to alleviate these types of stress. This month I continue the discussion with three additional sources of stress: overwork, chronic infection, and chronic pain. Because these sources of stress can affect most types of horses, from backyard ponies to top performance horses, I strongly suggest that every horse lover review their horse’s management program to ensure the least stress possible.
Stress from Overwork
Horses thrive on regular exercise and, if stalled, are more likely to be stressed by inactivity than overwork. However, persistent overwork without a break can take its toll. Many horses on the show, racing, or rode circuit are in constant training, and often have the added stress of travel between events. Supporting these horses emotionally as well as nutritionally helps up to a point, but nothing works quite like a week off to rest body and mind. Once a horse is pushed past his limit into burnout, the recovery time can be long, and some horses never return to their previous form.
Stress from Chronic Infections
Bacteria, viruses, or parasites that manage to slip past the body’s innate immune response and enter the bloodstream have the same effect as toxins. Instead of triggering a protective immune response, the immune system responds by releasing glucocorticoids. Most vaccines are injected directly into the muscle rather than through the natural route of infection, and this stimulates a systemic infection. A healthy horse may be able to overcome the effect of the glucocorticoids and still mount an immune response, but for a horse already under stress the vaccine response can easily further weaken the immune system. Once a pathogen has gone systemic, drugs or strong herbs may be needed to remove it, or at least weaken it enough for the immune system, assuming it is not too badly damaged, to take over.
Stress from Chronic Pain
The sources of chronic pain are too numerous to list, but a few examples include sore feet, ulcers, tooth or mouth pain, and sore backs. If a horse’s performance declines or he seems unhappy, it is important to do a thorough physical examination to rule out pain. A dental exam, lameness workup, and osteopathic evaluation should reveal any sources of chronic pain.
Keeping Your Horse Stress-Free
In today’s modern environment it can be difficult to create a totally natural environment for your horse. Aside from the numerous chemical toxins in the environment, horses also suffer from physical, emotional, and mental stress because of living conditions that are less than optimal. However, there are many things that you can do to support and strengthen your horse’s immune system. For general tips and techniques, please visit our article archive to read up on nutrition, husbandry, vaccines or more.
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About the Author
Madalyn Ward, DVM, owns Bear Creek Veterinary Clinic in Austin, Texas. She is certified in Veterinary Homeopathy and Equine Osteopathy.
Memberships include American Veterinary Medical Association, American Association of Equine Practitioners, American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association, Texas Veterinary Medical Association and the Academy of Veterinary Homeopathy.
She has authored several books and publishes at her blog.