When a horse makes an unusual noise associated with respiration during exercise, you should always take it seriously. Some noises indicate a self-limiting problem. However, noises can also indicate that a more significant airway obstruction, like constriction or narrowing, is developing, possibly even requiring surgery.
Noises, described as blowing, whistling, roaring, gurgling, and fluttering are created by turbulent airflow, which results from a change in the shape of the internal airways, sometimes very slight. Abnormalities in just about any structure of the nose, throat, or sinuses can cause noise and exercise intolerance. Only a thorough examination including endoscopy can sort them out.
Dorsal Displacement of the Soft Palate
Dorsal displacement of the soft palate (DDSP) is the inappropriate positioning of the soft palate above the epiglottis during breathing.
The soft palate is an extension of the hard palate and both serve as a barrier between the nasal passages and the mouth. It is not rigid and moves upward ("dorsal") when horses swallow to form a channel between the mouth and esophagus. This prevents food and water from entering the nasal passages. When horses are not swallowing the soft palate should remain beneath the epiglottis. This streamlines air movement from the nose to the windpipe (trachea) and back.
There are two basic forms of DDSP. In the first type, dorsal displacement of the soft palate is present continuously. The horse appears unable to ever position the soft palate beneath the epiglottis, as in a normal horse. These horses may have other symptoms including, but not limited to, inability to swallow, coughing when eating and abnormal respiratory noise during slow exercise.
In the second form, the soft palate displaces dorsally only during exercise, or intermittently This displacement usually occurs abruptly and without warning. This is the most common form of DDSP and it occurs primarily in racehorses (thoroughbreds and standardbreds) at race speeds.
The inappropriate dorsal position of the soft palate during exercise significantly reduces the diameter of the airway and can triple the effort that it takes the horse to breathe.
The position of displaced soft palate in the airway results in a characteristic gurgling or flutter respiratory noise that is loudest on expiration. The horses are said to "choke-up" or "swallow the tongue," and since the horse cannot breathe through his mouth, until he swallows a few times and replaces the soft palate, he cannot breathe. There are, however, some horses that displace their soft palate that do not produce an abnormal noise.
To date there is no known single cause of DDSP. Inflammation of the airway, small epiglottic size, and inflammation of or trauma to the nerves and muscles responsible for soft palate position or movement have all been proposed as possible causes.
What to Watch For
All racehorses that have a history of poor performance in the absence of lameness should be examined for DDSP. It should also be considered in all horses, regardless of their occupation, if the horse has a history of exercise intolerance and produces an abnormal respiratory noise during exercise.
Home care is tailored for each specific surgical procedure. Horse's undergoing a staphylectomy are generally treated initially with antibiotics and pain medications along with rest. Stall rest with hand walking is prescribed for the first 3 to 4 weeks, then a gradual return to regular exercise.
Horses undergoing a myectomy procedure are also treated with antibiotics, pain medications and a period of rest. Regular exercise is generally resumed in two weeks.
Success rates for the treatments range from 50 to 60 percent.
As there is some concern that infection of the upper airway may lead to abnormal function of the nerves and muscles responsible for airway function, proper treatment and adequate rest should be provided for horses with upper airway infections. This may reduce the incidence of soft palate displacement. There is no known prevention for dorsal displacement of the soft palate.