Shipping Fever In Horses – Everything You Need To Know!

Last Updated on March 26, 2022

If you’ve ever been involved with transporting horses for long distances you will have undoubtedly heard about shipping fever in horses. But what exactly is this medical problem in horses, how is it diagnosed, and how can we prevent it?

What Causes Shipping Fever In Horses?

Shipping fever in horses is a medical condition that occurs when a horse is traveled for long distances, which is how it gets its name. It was once common in horses that were transported by ship, although it can also occur in horses that travel by trailer, lorry, airplane, or horse transporter for long distances.

This debilitating disease causes respiratory problems for the horse, and it occurs for a number of reasons.

Normal Routine Interrupted

Firstly, when a horse is transported for long periods it is under constant stress. This applies to any horse, no matter how chilled out your pony looks in the trailer!

When being transported, horses are normally confined or tied up for long periods, and their normal routine is disrupted. The horse will not be able to move, lie down, or sleep as he normally would, and he will be on constant alert due to the unfamiliar surroundings and noises. He will have to stay alert to keep his balance, without the opportunity to relax.

Horses can cope with stress in small amounts, but this constant stress can be very debilitating. The immune system will be compromised, leaving the horse more susceptible to infection.

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Not Being Able To Move

The second problem that occurs when horses are transported is that they cannot move around as much as normal. Their head will be tied to a fixed position, and they cannot walk or lower their head to the floor. This leads to a build-up of fluid in the lungs of the horse.

It is the combination of stress and this fluid accumulation that causes shipping fever in horses. The horse develops a large increase in inflammatory cells and bacteria in the lungs, and the horse develops pneumonia-type symptoms.

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What Are The Symptoms Of Shipping Fever In Horses?

Shipping fever can occur either during the period of transportation or once the horse has reached its destination. The horse will have difficulty breathing, with an increased respiratory rate. You may also notice the horse coughing, and nasal discharge may be present. The horse will develop a fever, and the rectal temperature will be increased. It is good practice to monitor the temperature of horses for several days after a long journey, as this can help an early diagnosis of shipping fever.

A horse with shipping fever will also be dull and depressed, with little interest in food or water. This can quickly lead to dehydration. The horse will also be lethargic and unwilling to work. If shipping fever is not treated quickly, the horse will develop severe pleuropneumonia. This is a potentially fatal condition, so a prompt diagnosis of shipping fever is vital.

Pleuropneumonia occurs as a result of an infection in both the lungs and the pleural cavity – the space between the lungs and the thoracic cavity. This is very difficult to treat and often requires aggressive intervention such as a chest drain. A prolonged course of antibiotics is also required, and even if the horse recovers it may not make a full return to work.

How Is Shipping Fever In Horses Diagnosed?

Shipping fever is commonly diagnosed by a combination of clinical history and a full examination of the horse. A horse that has recently been transported for long distances and that is showing signs of fever and respiratory distress is highly likely to be suffering from shipping fever.

If a horse has recently been transported for a long distance, it is wise to monitor it carefully for signs of shipping fever. The temperature should be taken at least twice per day, and the horse’s food and water intake closely monitored. A speedy diagnosis of shipping fever will lead to a much more rapid recovery.

How Is Shipping Fever In Horses Diagnosed

Your veterinarian will carry out additional tests to assess the severity of the disease and whether the horse has secondary pleuropneumonia. Blood tests will show increased levels of inflammatory cells and infection-fighting white blood cells. Ultrasonography will assess the condition of the lungs, and how far any infection has spread.

Shipping Fever In Horses Summary

So, as we have learned, shipping fever in horses occurs when a horse is transported for long periods. The combination of stress and a build-up of fluid in the lungs lead to pneumonia-type symptoms. Rapid diagnosis and treatment of shipping fever is essential to facilitate a quick and full recovery for the horse

We’d love to hear your thoughts on shipping fever in horses! Have you got a strategy worked out for preventing this medical problem when transporting your horse? Or maybe you’re worried about taking your horse on a long journey? Leave a comment below and we’ll get back to you!


What Is Shipping Fever In Horses?

Shipping fever is a respiratory condition of horses caused by the combination of stress during transport and the accumulation of fluid in the lungs.

How To Treat Shipping Fever In Horses?

If your horse has shipping fever, your veterinarian may prescribe an extended course of antibiotics and anti-inflammatory medication. For horses with pleuropneumonia, a period of hospitalisation may be required. The pleural cavity will need to be regularly drained with a chest drain to aid recovery.

How Long Does Shipping Fever Last In Horses?

A mild case of shipping fever that is treated quickly will be resolved in a short space of time. More severe cases, particularly those that have developed pleuropneumonia, will take longer to recover and may never make a full return to work. Severe pleuropneumonia is fatal in one in ten horses.

How To Cure Shipping Fever In Horses?

Shipping fever can be prevented by improving the conditions of the horse transport. The journey should be broken up into shorter distances, and the horse allowed to stretch his head down to remove dust and fluid from the lungs. The transport should be well ventilated to ensure the horse can breathe fresh air at all times.