Sharp observers in the John Servis barn this week may have noticed Kentucky Oaks contender Jaywalk cooling out in the shedrow with some sort of futuristic plastic device on her nose. Have no fear – the reigning Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies winner is neither sick nor a cyborg.
The device is a battery-powered equine nebulizer mask, made of soft material that fits over a horse's nose and with a tube to hold saline, minerals, or medications that are delivered in aerosol form. Like human nebulizers, the equipment was once only available when hooked up to a motor via a hose, but it's now mobile, allowing horses like Jaywalk to get their treatments while they walk. The mobile version also has the advantage of silence, minimizing any disturbances to the filly.
In hospital settings, nebulizer treatments can deliver antibiotics, corticosteroids, or bronchodilators directly to the airways to help heal a serious infection. They're also used for prevention, which is Servis's purpose with Jaywalk.
“Once she's done drinking, we put it on her. It's on for five to ten minutes and she's done. It's just to keep her clean,” Servis said Wednesday morning. “Going into a race like this it keeps her open, especially this time of year with allergies and stuff. I know my son and I are both dying [with seasonal allergies]. It's just a precaution.”
Jaywalk receives a combination of saline and chelated silver, which are both thought to draw out irritants in the airway and minimize infection risk. Servis believes they may help stave off an incident of exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage (EIPH). Other preventative treatments available for nebulizers include thymic protein (also to fight infections) and conjugated estrogens (believed to help blood coagulate, should an EIPH incident happen).
Servis said he has three battery-powered nebulizers and doesn't use them on all his horses, but quite a few do receive regular treatments.
“I'll use then ten days going into a race, just to make sure they're good and clean. The bleeders get it every day,” he said.
Bronchodilators have also been a popular choice to deliver via nebulizer as trainers look for more alternatives to stave off EIPH and other breathing difficulties. But trainers do have to be cautious if they choose to use the masks to deliver medications — Kiaran McLaughlin learned that the hard way in 2009 when he was issued three violations for “trace levels” of ipratropium bromide. McLaughlin had been using the medication at the direction of his veterinarian to deal with recurrent airway obstruction from hay dust. Racetracks are well-documented to be dusty places – to a degree that's actually considered by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to be over recommended thresholds for humans. Research shows inflammatory airway disease impacts as much as a third of the racing population.
The use of tiny amounts of silver as an antimicrobial isn't particularly new – it has been recognized as such in human medicine as far back as ancient Egypt – and it's used to sanitize recycled water in the space shuttle and to clean oysters and crabs after harvest. It can also be found in wound sprays to promote on-site healing. Although many firmly believe in its powers, there's relatively little peer-reviewed, published research into its effectiveness in horses compared to pharmaceuticals. The amount of silver particles found in such treatments is minuscule, well below toxicity thresholds, and they're heavily diluted by saline or other liquid solutions.
Servis said he doesn't believe it does any harm – and it may well help.
“It makes me feel better,” he joked.
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