Coughing in horses in common at this time of year, with many caused by an allergy or reaction to environmental dust and its constituents including particles of feed, bedding and forage, mould spores, micro-organisms, microbial toxins, ammonia and mites. If allergies are left untreated and management changes are not made, affected horses can suffer from chronic airway disease, which used to called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) but is now called recurrent airway obstruction (RAO). Coughs can also be caused by a viral or bacterial infection of the respiratory tract and other, rarer causes.
A cough is a symptom, not a disease in itself, so it is an indication that something is wrong. Horses have a low cough reflex and there is usually significant inflammation or irritation in the respiratory system before a cough is heard. For that reason, any cough should always be taken seriously. Speak to your vet, make changes in your horse’s management and ensure good forage and feed hygiene.
Simply stabling a horse – no matter how clean the environment – has been shown in research to cause a reaction in the respiratory system, so effort should be made to keep stables as clean and hygienic as possible. Some management tips include:
- Use dust-free or dust-extracted bedding and clean out daily – do not deep litter
- Vets recommend rubber matting with dust extracted woodchip, paper or hemp bedding
- Regularly dust the stable and clean mouldy corners
- Use dust-free forage such as haylage or soak hay for 10-30 minutes to lay dust and swell mould spores
- Mix water into bucket feeds to dampen any dust
- Use only high quality forage and feed and always avoid mouldy forage or feed
- Keep feeding buckets and troughs and mixing utensils and scoops clean to avoid moulding of feed residues
- Do not overfeed protein to control levels of ammonia from urine
- All horses should be turned out as much as possible, but horses with respiratory allergies or coughs will especially benefit from more turnout
Consider a respiratory-supporting supplement because there is evidence to show that certain herbs and antioxidant nutrients can help support inflamed or irritated airways. Vitamins C and E and selenium are useful antioxidants for lung tissue, and traditionally-used herbs for respiratory support include garlic, liquorice, plantain, thyme and elecampane. Such supplements will work best when employed with careful management, and should not be used instead of good basic care.
Performance in horses is limited by oxygen uptake and use, so any limit from airway narrowing, excess mucus or irritation will limit performance. It is especially important to ensure as clean and dust-free an environment as possible for horses who are expected to perform athletically.
If your horse coughs, take action!