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How Bad is Your Horse’s Cough?

Here's how to use your ears and eyes to distinguish between benign horse coughs and signs of trouble.

A coughing horse always gets your attention. Loud, dramatic, entire-body affairs, equine coughs are impossible to ignore--particularly if you are mounted on the horse at the time.

But the sound and intensity of a cough don't necessarily tell you how significant it is. Most are simply natural attempts to clear a transitory irritant from the respiratory tract; others signal more serious or chronic conditions that can jeopardize long-term health. "If you listen carefully and look for clues-such as the frequency of the cough or how the horse looks otherwise--you can usually determine what type of cough you are dealing with," says Ed Robinson, BVetMed, PhD, director of the Pulmonary Laboratory at Michigan State University. "And it's important to do so from the very first cough. Ignoring a seemingly minor cough can allow it to turn into a major problem."

Of course, you'll rely on your veterinarian to diagnose the cause of your horse's cough and determine the appropriate treatment. But you can gather information yourself that will assist in the process. To help you, Robinson and his MSU colleague and fellow respiratory expert Frederik Derksen, DVM, PhD, explain the seven most common types of equine cough, along with their usual causes and treatments.

Frequent Dry Coughs
Other signs: Watery nasal discharge, fever, reluctance to eat and/or lethargy
Triggered by exercise? No
Likely cause: Early viral infection. These coughs, which usually come several in a row, stem from irritation in the upper respiratory system. Mucus production is minimal, leading to a drier sound, but that can be difficult to discern. "It can be very hard to distinguish a dry cough from a wet one--that is, one that is associated with moving mucus--in a horse," says Derksen. "Even those of us who research coughs can be hard-pressed to tell the difference, but it's helpful to try."
What to do: Rest the horse two days for every day he coughs and make sure he gets plenty of fresh air. Tell your veterinarian about the situation, though a farm visit may not be necessary. Antibiotics are not effective against viral infections, but careful nursing can help the horse's immune system do its job.


Periodic Wet Cough
Other signs: Copious gray or yellowish nasal discharge, combined with loss of appetite, fever and lethargy
Triggered by exercise? No
Likely cause: Bacterial infection. In horses as in people, bacteria often invade the respiratory system after a viral infection has weakened the body's defenses. "If the horse has a bacterial infection, you're going to see a lot of mucus," says Robinson. This, he adds, is a good thing: Mucus is the immune system's tool for gathering and removing bacteria and damaged tissue from the respiratory tract.
What to do:Call your veterinarian, who will likely make a visit. If he prescribes antibiotics, be sure to finish the entire course even if the horse looks better after only a few doses. Rest the horse twice as long as he was ill, and make sure he gets plenty of fresh air.

Occasional Wet or Dry Cough
Other signs: None currently, but the horse did have a respiratory illness within the past few months.
Triggered by exercise? Sometimes, but not always
Likely cause: Residual effects of the earlier, acute respiratory illness. "The inflammation from an infection, particularly a bad bacterial one, can take weeks or months to resolve," says Derksen. "In that time, the receptors in the horse's airway are going to be hypersensitive, resulting in more frequent coughs in response to less provocation." Eventually, the inflammation subsides and the horse returns to normal.
What to do: To encourage the healing process, give the horse plenty of fresh air and take care to avoid overtaxing him physically. If he is still coughing two months after the original illness resolved, ask your veterinarian to rule out continued infection, chronic respiratory disease or other potential problems.

Repeated Wet Coughs
Other signs: Coughing worsens at predictable times and in certain environments, such as in a stall, at feeding time or when being ridden, and improves when the horse is turned out on pasture.
Triggered by exercise? Sometimes, but not always
Likely cause: Recurrent airway obstruction (RAO), also known as heaves. This condition is an allergic response to airborne antigens, such as dust from bedding or hay. When the antigens are inhaled they trigger bronchospasm that narrows the airways and stimulates copious mucus production. The horse has to work harder to breathe, and coughs are a reaction to the mucus and increased airway reactivity. "The cough may not start immediately after exposure, but within one or two days," says Robinson. Heaves is a chronic condition, meaning the horse will always have a reaction to an antigen and the reactions may get progressively worse as the lungs become more inflamed and sensitive.
What to do: Medications, such as steroids and bronchodilators, can help horses with heaves, says Derksen, but they are best used to treat an acute episode rather than to manage a long-term problem. He adds that the most effective method of minimizing heaves is to put a horse on continuous turnout, wet his hay, and adopt other management measures that reduce exposure to dust and other allergens. "It's not always practical and easy, but ensuring a horse is never exposed to his triggers is really the only way to keep heaves under control," says Robinson. "Once horses are in a dust-free environment they breathe easier and cough less but they are not cured--the problems will return if they are exposed again." Conversely, a small number of horses, mainly in the humid South but also occasionally in the North, develop "pasture heaves" during the spring and summer. Because these horses are allergic to pollens and plant materials associated with pasture, they improve when kept in stalls during these seasons.

Posted in Illnesses & Injuries | 1 Comment

One Response to “How Bad is Your Horse’s Cough?”

  1. [...] The exercises I’ll present here are the same ones I use to start colts, reform bad actors and keep nice, broke horses nice and [...]

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