Merck Manual

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Professional Version

Principles of Therapy for Respiratory Disease in Animals


Caroline C. Tonozzi

, DVM, DACVECC, Mission Veterinary Partners

Reviewed/Revised Apr 2021 | Modified Nov 2022

Respiratory disease is often characterized by abnormal production of secretions and exudates and by a reduced ability to remove them. The primary goal of therapy is to reduce the volume and viscosity of the secretions and to facilitate their removal. This can be accomplished by controlling infection and inflammation, modifying the secretions, and when possible, improving postural drainage and mechanically removing the material. Therapeutic methods include altering the inspired air and administering expectorants, antitussives, bronchodilators, antimicrobials, diuretics, and other drugs. However, expectorants have shown little or no beneficial effects in clinical trials.

Hydration should be maintained. Inhalation of humidified air may facilitate removal of airway secretions. Expectorants are sometimes used with the intention of liquefying these secretions. However, they should be used in conjunction with ancillary respiratory therapy such as improved postural drainage, mild exercise, and coupage, which (in addition to coughing) encourages expectoration and removal of secretions. Mechanical removal of tenacious and viscid secretions by suction may be necessary in severe airway obstruction.

Antitussive agents may be considered to relieve the discomfort associated with nonproductive coughing but are contraindicated when secretion of airway mucus is excessive. Products that contain atropine also are contraindicated, at least in theory, because atropine increases the viscosity of airway secretions.

Increased airway resistance caused by bronchial smooth muscle contraction can be alleviated with bronchodilators. Methylxanthines, such as theophylline and aminophylline, are effective bronchodilators in species other than cattle; however, the therapeutic index is relatively narrow and they are less efficacious than beta2-agonists. Systemic corticosteroids are highly effective in allergic conditions but may result in adverse effects. Aerosolized corticosteroids are efficacious and associated with few to no adverse effects; however, they require an aerosol delivery device (eg, face mask) for proper administration. Antihistamines can be used to alleviate the bronchoconstriction caused by histamine release; however, they are of limited value in large animals.

In bacterial infection, antimicrobial treatment should be instituted. The goal is to select either the most effective agent against a specific organism or the least toxic agent of several alternatives. Culture and sensitivity testing of airway secretions provide a worthwhile, although not infallible, guide to determining the appropriate antibiotic. Knowledge of tissue penetration and pharmacokinetic characteristics of the antimicrobial agents is important as well.

The following antimicrobial agents have been reported to be effective in the listed species:

  • cattle—oxytetracycline, cephalosporins, fluoroquinolones, macrolides, florfenicol, penicillins, and sulfonamides

  • sheep and goats—oxytetracycline, cephalosporins, macrolides, penicillins, and sulfonamides

  • pigs—lincomycin, spectinomycin, penicillins, and sulfonamides

  • dogs and cats—cephalosporins, chloramphenicol, amoxicillin-clavulanate, aminoglycosides, trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole, fluoroquinolones, macrolides, and tetracyclines

  • horses—penicillins, aminoglycosides, cephalosporins, fluoroquinolones, sulfonamides, and tetracyclines (the latter with caution due to an occasional adverse effect of severe diarrhea).

Aminoglycosides are nephrotoxic but can be considered if indicated and with careful use. Trimethoprim, usually in combination with a sulfonamide, is useful for respiratory therapy in most species but is not licensed for food-producing animals in the US. Appropriate antimicrobial stewardship is essential, using critically important antimicrobials (CIAs) only if indicated necessary via laboratory tests. CIAs include 3rd- and 4th-generation cephalosporins, fluoroquinolones, and, to a lesser extent, aminoglycosides and macrolides. Other classes of drugs should be used in preference to CIAs.

Broad-spectrum antibiotics should be used if specific bacteria cannot be identified, and once begun, a full course of therapy should be completed. Multiple antimicrobial agents should be used only with full knowledge of the potential drug interactions. Because of residues in food-producing animals, veterinarians must use these products according to label instructions and provide sound advice to producers. Extra-label use of antimicrobials is permitted in some situations and is regulated by the Animal Medicinal Drug Use Clarification Act of 1994.

The hypoxemia caused by most lung disorders must be addressed by administering supplemental oxygen. However, continuous administration of oxygen at concentrations >80% for 24 hours or longer increases the risk of oxygen toxicity. Endotracheal intubation and mechanical ventilation may be necessary in animals with acute respiratory failure or PaO2 < 80 mm Hg. Arterial blood gas analysis including and pH determinations, when practicable, are extremely valuable to monitor treatment.

Diuretics are indicated in pulmonary edema. The osmotic diuretics have a minimal action on diuresis, carbonic anhydrase inhibitors (eg, acetazolamide) have a moderate effect, and loop diuretics (eg, furosemide) have a profound effect.

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