Horse Coughing? The Time To Take Action Is Now!

A very sick horse with symptoms of equine asthma.
A very sick horse with symptoms of equine asthma. S. Hanusch

Newsdate: Thursday, April 8, 2021 - 8:35 am
Location: GUELPH, Ontario

A spring article by Equine Guelph focuses on what to do if your horse has a cough and is experiencing difficulty breathing. The article featuring Renaud Leguillette, DVM, DACVIM, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, University of Calgary discussing Equine Asthma diagnosis includes video clips kindly provided by Boehringer Ingelheim, Equine Guelph’s E-news sponsor. 

Dried round bales of hay for horses.

Dried round bales of hay for horses

Heave Line - The heave line develops along the lower edge of the rib cage as the horse has to work harder to breathe, due to inflammation and airway obstruction..
© 2008 by FergieFam007 New window.

According to the article: Early intervention is paramount when dealing with the irreversible disease, equine asthma, commonly referred to as heaves, RAO or IAD. Equine asthma starts off with a hypersensitivity reaction to particles in the air (e.g., dust, mould). These particles cause inflammation in the airways and restrict airflow. 

Heaves is now called severe equine asthma as the horse will struggle to breathe even at rest. 

Heave Line – the heave line develops along the lower edge of the ribcage as the horse has to work harder to breathe, due to inflammation and airway obstruction. The chest muscles must work harder during each breath taken by the horse. 

If you wait until a heave line appears, the disease has already progressed to advanced stages. 

Prevention of airway problems is the best way to protect your horse, but when not successful, what is next?

It is important that horse owners never ignore a cough in their horse. It should be investigated and diagnosed without delay. There is much that can be done on the management side to prevent further damage, as a global paper on equine asthma attests. 

Intervention is recommended at the first sign of coughing, and more so if the cough is repetitive or persistent.

Triggered by the microscopic particles that cause airway inflammation, common signs of equine asthma include coughing, nasal discharge, exercise intolerance and breathing difficulties. Equine asthma can affect horses at any age in any discipline of riding. 

Prevention is key 

According to Renaud Leguillette, DVM, DACVIM, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, University of Calgary, feeding horses from a round hay bale can potentially double the risk of developing equine asthma!

Horses are picky eaters and do not hesitate to bury their heads deep in the round bale to look for the most desirable hay first. In doing so they inhale all sorts of dust, mould and particulates

Many stabled horses are exposed to exponentially more inhalable irritants than horses kept outside. Pasture board is often the best option for horses suffering from equine asthma – minus the round bales of course.

Every precaution to reduce dust in the environment should be taken. Low dust bedding, turning horses out before sweeping, cleaning stalls regularly to keep ammonia levels low and clearing out any mould under stall mats are just some of the effective measures that can be taken.

Maintaining arena footing to minimize dust, making sure the barn is well ventilated and feeding steamed hay and soaked concentrates are all environmental factors within the farm owner’s control. 

More causes and diagnostics 

If asthma is suspected, the veterinarian will be looking closely at the horse’s environment to determine what is causing the irritation in the lungs. They will be looking at all potential causes which could include: dusty environments, smoke inhalation, pollen or other allergens and particles in the pasture or hay. 

One cannot jump to conclusions at the first sign of a cough. The vet will need to rule out upper airway diseases and bacterial or viral infections. Bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL) is the gold standard diagnostic test for asthma.

Corticosteroids administered with or without a bronchodilator may be prescribed to help the horse recover from bouts of equine asthma, but environmental improvement is the key to long-term management. Always bring in the veterinarian to check a horse that repeatedly coughs. It is vital to prevent the debilitating progression of asthma.

See complete article including videos HERE


Press release by Equine Guelph

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