Exertional heat illness: a review of the syndrome affecting racing Thoroughbreds in hot and humid climates

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Metabolic heat produced by Thoroughbred racehorses during racing can rapidly elevate core body temperature (1°C/min). When environmental conditions are hot and humid, the normal physiological cooling mechanisms become ineffective. The heat accumulated may exceed a critical thermal maximum (estimated to be 42°C), which may trigger a complex pathophysiological cascade with potentially lethal consequences. This syndrome has been labelled exertional heat illness (EHI). EHI is described in humans, but has not been well documented in Thoroughbred racehorses. The clinical signs described in racehorses would suggest that the pathophysiological events affecting the central nervous (CNS) and gastrointestinal systems are similar to those described in humans. Clinical signs are progressive and include signs of endotoxaemia and increasing levels of CNS dysfunction. Initially, horses that may be mildly irritable (agitated, randomly kicking out) may progress to unmanageable (disorientation, severe ataxia, falling) and ultimately convulsions, coma and death. Currently, the approach to treatment is largely empirical and involves rapid and effective cooling, administration of drugs to provide sedation, administration of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to ameliorate the effects of endotoxaemia and glucocorticoids to stabilise cell membranes and reduce the effects of inflammation on the CNS. This review provides an overview of the current knowledge about EHI in Thoroughbred racehorses, suggests a likely pathophysiology of the syndrome in horses based on the current literature on heat illness in humans and horses, and outlines current treatment strategies being used to treat racehorses with clinical signs of EHI.

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