Equine asthma is a common cause of poor performance in racehorses but it is unclear if respiratory viruses contribute to its etiology. The objective of the study was to determine if respiratory viruses were associated with clinical signs and bronchoalveolar lavage fluid (BALF) cytology in Thoroughbred racehorses. Equine herpesviruses (EHV-1, 2, 4, 5) and equine rhinitis A and B viruses (ERBV, ERAV) genomes were quantified by qPCR in nasopharyngeal, tracheal, and BALF samples collected after racing. The relationships between virus detection and load and clinical signs, performance, BALF cytology, and environmental exposures were examined with generalized linear mixed models. Ninety-two samples were collected from 31 horses. EHV-1 and ERAV were not found; EHV-4 was detected in only one sample. EHV-2, EHV-5 and ERBV were more likely to be detected in upper airway samples than in BALF (P < 0.0001). Neither respiratory virus detection nor load was associated with clinical signs or performance. Nasopharyngeal detection and load of ERBV and tracheal detection and load of EHV-5 were associated with increased proportions of neutrophils in BALF (P < 0.003). However, nasopharyngeal detection and load of EHV-5 was not (P = 0.11). Nasopharyngeal detection and load of EHV-2 were associated with decreased BALF mast cell proportions. Respirable dust exposures were significantly higher in horses with detection of ERBV when compared to horses with no detectable ERBV (P < 0.001). Our results suggest that ERBV, EHV-2 and EHV-5 are commonly present in upper airways of healthy racehorses; however, the role they play in the etiology of equine asthma remains unclear.
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