Causes of Sudden Death in Racehorses Examined

Sometimes racehorses collapse on the track for reasons that are not immediately apparent; these exercise-related sudden death cases are uncommon and "poorly understood," according to an international team of researchers that recently completed a retrospective study on the subject. They noted that veterinarians are only able to determine the actual cause of death in about half of these cases that undergo postmortem examinations.

"In the study sudden death was defined as an acute death in a closely observed and previously apparently health animal, in the absence of a traumatic event (e.g., falling at a jump)," explained Catriona Lyle, BVM&S, the Horserace Betting Levy Board senior clinical scholar in equine internal medicine and cardiology at the University of Edinburgh. "In racing Thoroughbreds, sudden death is rare and our understanding of causes of sudden death is limited."

Lyle worked on this study with a team of researchers from the United States, Great Britain, Japan, Australia, and Hong Kong). She explained, "The motivation for this study arose from a Dorothy Havemeyer Foundation-funded workshop where it was recognized that there was a need for an improved understanding of the causes of sudden death in racehorses."

Team members collected post-mortem data from 268 Thoroughbred racehorses that suffered sudden death during or within one hour after exercise. These animals were from six racing jurisdictions around the world. According to Lyle, "causes of death were identified in only 53% of the cases."

These identified causes of death included:

  • Cardiac failure;
  • Presumptive pulmonary (lung) failure;
  • Pulmonary hemorrhage (bleeding);
  • Hemorrhage associated with pelvic fractures;
  • Hemorrhage associated with blood vessel rupture; and
  • Spinal cord injury.

"A presumptive cause of death was made in an additional 25% of the cases, but death remained unexplained in 22% of the cases," Lyle added. "The most likely explanation for these cases is a cardiac arrhythmia (abnormal heart rhythm), although this remains speculative."

The research group concluded that post-mortem technique and description of the injuries varied between pathologists, and they suggested that a standardized protocol for future post-mortem exams is needed in cases of sudden death. In addition they noted, "To facilitate diagnosis and possible future investigation it is advisable to take samples for histopathology (tissue evaluation) from both the heart and lungs."

The study, "Sudden death in racing Thoroughbred horses: An international multicentre study of post mortem findings," is scheduled to be published in an upcoming edition of the Equine Veterinary Journal. The abstract is available online.

Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian before proceeding with any diagnosis, treatment, or therapy.