By Eleanor Blazer
A coughing horse stops time. Activity ceases as the afflicted horse is identified and observed.
If all’s well, life goes on; but with a cautious eye on the horse – just in case.
Coughing is a symptom. It can be caused by something as trivial as a little dust or as serious as an underlying medical condition.
Observation is the key to determining if the coughing horse needs a change in management, a visit from the veterinarian or no action.
A one-time coughing episode is probably of no concern, but frequent coughs are red flags.
A horse that continues to cough needs to have his vital signs checked. An elevated temperature, heart or respiration rate is a sign of distress. A baseline of normal vital signs should always be available.
Illnesses that cause coughing and elevated vital signs can be caused by a bacterial or viral infection. The horse will need rest and supportive care. A veterinarian should be consulted.
Note the posture of the coughing horse. An outstretched neck or strange neck angle can be a sign of obstruction in the throat.
Discharge from the nostrils that contain bits of feed may also be present. All feed should be removed and a veterinarian called.
When the coughing occurs can be a clue to the cause.
If the horse coughs a few times at the start of exercise and then is fine, he’s probably just clearing some accumulated mucous. The handler should be aware of what is normal and make note if the coughing changes.
Coughing and breathing distress in summer or fall can be a sign of heaves…summer pasture-associated Recurrent Airway Obstruction. Heat, humidity, mold and pollen worsen the condition. Removing the horse from pasture and keeping him in a low dust, well ventilated environment is needed.
Horses that cough and exhibit breathing problems when kept in dusty barns may have barn-associated Recurrent Airway Obstruction (RAO). These horses need to be removed from the barn and placed in a well ventilated area, free from dust and mold.
All horses, whether they have RAO or not, should not be exposed to dust or mold.
Prevention is paramount when it comes to managing the horse’s health.
Avoid feeding dusty hay. Wet the hay – before giving it to the horse.
Do not offer hay in overhead hay racks. This is an unnatural eating position for the horse and does not allow nasal passages to drain. Overhead hay racks also allow dust and other particles to drop into the eyes. Horses also tend to bury their noses in the rack – exposing them to more dust.
When cleaning the barn – remove the horse. Sweeping the aisle way or loading shavings into stalls makes unhealthy air quality. Leaf blowers really stir up the dust. Donning an inexpensive dust mask is highly recommended for the people doing the cleaning.
Try to avoid storing hay above stalls; the dust filters down to the horses. If it can’t be avoided, remove the horses when a new hay delivery arrives and when throwing hay down for feeding.
Keep all vaccinations up to date. Vaccinations can prevent or at least lessen the severity of many respiratory illnesses.
Maintain a good rotational de-worming schedule.
It is rare, but horses can acquire lungworms. Horses grazing on pastures with donkeys or mules (the natural host of the lungworm) can become infested with the parasite. Lungworms cause coughing as they migrate up the esophagus. De-wormers that contain ivermectin or moxidectin kill lungworms.
Don’t ignore a coughing horse – he may be trying to tell you something.