Equine Asthma – Is your horse coughing?

Three horses, a gray, a bay, and a chestnut grazing in a pasture with a split-rail fence and trees in the background on a sunny day.
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Equine Asthma – Is your horse coughing? The time to take action is now!

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

Early intervention is paramount when dealing with the irreversible disease, equine asthma, commonly referred to as heaves, RAO or IAD. The disease 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

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

What is a 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.

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

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.

It is important that horse owners never ignore a cough in their horse. It should be investigated and diagnosed without delay.

Common signs of equine asthma

Equine asthma can affect horses at any age in any discipline of riding. 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 include:

Video below: Review of Equine Asthma Part 1 – Renaud Leguillette – Renaud Leguillette, DVM, DACVIM, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, University of Calgary shares his expertise on Equine Asthma. Video clips kindly provided by Boehringer Ingelheim, Equine Guelph’s E-news sponsor.

Prevention of Equine Asthma 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.

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Many stabled horses are exposed to exponentially more inhalable irritants than horses kept outside. Twenty-four hour turnout 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.

Equine Asthma
Feeding horses from a round hay bale can potentially double the risk of developing equine asthma!

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.

Review of Equine Asthma Part 2 – Renaud Leguillette – Renaud Leguillette, DVM, DACVIM, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, University of Calgary discusses diagnosis. Video clips kindly provided by Boehringer Ingelheim, Equine Guelph’s E-news sponsor.

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.

You can learn more about how to avoid Equine Asthma in our article here.

With thanks to Equine Guelph, Canada

Equine Guelph, Canada
Equine Guelph, Canada

About Equine Guelph

Equine Guelph is the horse owners’ and care givers’ Centre at the University of Guelph in Canada. It is a unique partnership dedicated to the health and well-being of horses, supported and overseen by equine industry groups. Equine Guelph is the epicentre for academia, industry and government – for the good of the equine industry as a whole.

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