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Coping with breathing problems

The most common cause of chronic coughing and equine breathing problems is an allergic reaction or hypersensitivity to the spores within the dust from hay and straw.

Horses which develop recurrent airway obstruction (RAO), or as it was formerly known chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), will, at worst, be constantly breathless, may cough repeatedly and suffer laboured breathing, or in milder cases they cough occasionally, lack stamina or have an increased rate of respiration.

Most horse owners are aware if their horse has a breathing problem and try to modify their stable management to minimise dust by incorporating some of the following suggestions into their daily routine.

  • Use a dust-free bedding such as rubber matting and ensure good stable ventilation (not draughts)
  • Feed haylage or soaked hay of good quality
  • Groom outside
  • Keep affected horses away from the muck heap, hay store and other horses on dusty bedding
  • Remove the horse from the stable while mucking out
  • Travel the horse in a dust-free environment
  • Always feed from the floor

Signs that the condition may need veterinary intervention include wheezing, constant coughing, rapid shallow breathing or heaving — where a line appears along the bottom of the rib cage at the intake of each breath — and thick nasal discharge.

A horse suffering from acute symptoms should be turned out into a dust-free, airy space such as a paddock, kept quiet and closely observed.

Call the vet immediately if:

  • The horse is really gasping and does not improve within the hour
  • He has a temperature — this could indicate an infection
  • If there is severe coughing that will not stop — this may indicate a blockage in the gullet or airway
  • If there is a new loud roaring/snoring sound
  • If the horse has had a recent chest injury

Veterinary surgeon Karen Coumbe from Bell Equine says: “If a vet is called to a horse with acute breathing difficulties, there are treatments which will help. However, they may only temporarily control the signs, not cure the condition.

“A closer examination, possibly involving passing an endoscope to examine the inside of the airways, may be suggested, to help find a longer-term solution. Many cases are reversible with aggressive treatment, particularly through good dust-free management.”

  • This article was originally published in the 30 October issue of Horse & Hound as part of the Accident & Emergency series. Don’t miss the current Accident & Emergency feature, which focuses on respiratory infections.


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