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Cause of deathMost horses in barn fires die of smoke inhalation.

Large aisleways and high roofs cause smoke to accumulate near the ceiling and to then form over the tops of the horses' stalls. Generally, horses panic and try to escape this smoke, which usually leads them to climb the corners of the stall to get out. The horses' heads are unfortunately kept in the dense smoke cloud and their efforts and increased respirations from panic and attempts to escape cause them to inhale even more smoke. They are quickly overcome.

Many horses that do escape barn fires also have to deal with significant smoke inhalation. These horses show signs of pulmonary edema that may take a few days to develop. They must be treated aggressively with bronchodilators, antibiotics, steroids and diuretics as needed. If these horses have been burned, then fluid replacement and electrolyte management become critically important as well. Many such horses will not fully recover and maintain pulmonary damage for life.

No guaranteesThere is no 100 percent method to prevent barn fires.

Sprinkler systems are undoubtedly the best, but they are very expensive and they too can malfunction. Avoiding the simple things that can cause fires and attention to electrical systems, hay storage, no smoking rules, barn appliances and common sense can all make a difference.

Veterinarians are in a position to greatly help our clients by reminding them of barn fire safety and to point out hazards observed on daily barn visits. This may make veterinarians temporarily unpopular with some clients. No one likes to have his or her barn inadequacies or potential problems pointed out. But, as with advising clients that their overweight and overfed horse is prone to founder or that their habit of erratic feedings may make their horse colic, it is the veterinarian's job to point out potential trouble before it occurs, and we owe the horses we care for at least that much.

Advising on fire safety and stressing a barn disaster plan will do much more for your clients and their horses than will any condolences after a fire.

Dr. Marcella, a 1983 graduate of Cornell University's veterinary college, was a professor of comparative medicine at the University of Virginia. His interests include muscle problems in sport horses, rehabilitation and other performance issues.


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