Horse coughing can be harmless or serious. Here’s some notes on problems and causes with a coughing horse and treatment that will help your horse’s recovery!
Horse coughing is a common complaint, but not always a sign of disease. Many horse riders are familiar with their horse giving a few coughs at the start of exercise “to clear the throat” as they often say. However, beyond this why do horses cough? And when is it an indication of something more sinister?
Respiratory Problems in Horses Symptoms
A cough indicates that there is irritation to the horse’s respiratory system. There are many different types of coughs in horses and their differences can help determine what is causing the cough.
Duration of Cough
Has the horse been coughing for a long time or has it only recently start coughing?
A dry cough means there is no phlegm produced.
A discharge from the nose indicates excess mucus or phlegm is being produced as part of the respiratory condition.
Number of Horses Coughing
A whole yard or barn of horses coughing is most likely due to an infectious agent which is being transferred from horse to horse, such as a respiratory virus. One horse coughing on its own, in the company of others, suggests the problem is not infectious and more likely due to an allergic condition.
If the cough is occurring along with other symptoms such as elevated temperature, horse off feed or reduced performance these are further signs that the horse is sick due to a respiratory infection.
Coughing accompanied by nasal discharge, high temperature, reduced performance or which has occurred as a yard outbreak should always be investigated by a veterinarian. A full veterinary investigation may include, listening to the horses chest, blood work, nasal swabs, endoscopic examination, tracheal or lung wash. These tests are used to get a clearer picture of what is affecting the animal and try to reach a conclusive diagnosis.
What Causes a Horse to Cough?
Despite vaccination, influenza (Flu) infection is still a common cause of respiratory infection and coughing in horses. Influenza is caused by a virus and spreads rapidly through a yard to all horses stabled together. Additionally usually it causes an elevation in temperature over a few days along with reduced appetite. For unvaccinated horses influenza infection can be prolonged and even life threatening.
Equine Herpes Virus
Equine Herpes virus (EHV) is a common cause of coughing and clear nasal discharge in young horses. As a virus it will spread quickly to all previously uninfected horses in the yard. It is usually a mild infection, although it can cause elevated temperatures and reduced feed intake. Vaccination can reduce the incidence of the EHV in a yard.
Strangles is one of the most common causes of respiratory infection in horses and is caused by the highly infectious bacteria Streptococcus equi. Strangles transfers rapidly through contaminated exudates such as, nasal discharge to all horses in a yard. The typical signs are increased temperature, reduced appetite, nasal discharge, coughing and swollen lymph nodes (glands). Often the swollen glands will burst and release pus to the skin.
Recurrent Airway Obstruction
Recurrent Airway Obstruction (ROA) or “heaves” is a common cause of coughing in older horses. ROA is caused by allergic reaction in the horse’s lung to dust in the hay, bedding or environment. ROA is not transmitted between horses. With ROA the allergic response results in increased mucus production and reduced airway diameter predisposing to coughing.
Lungworm is another infectious cause of coughing in horses. However, because horses are not a primary host for lungworms, it is usually only seen in horses pastured with donkeys.
Exercise Induced Pulmonary Haemorrhage (EIPH)
Exercise Induced Pulmonary Haemorrhage is seen most commonly in race horses. The majority of EIPH affected horses do not have a bloody nasal discharge, in these horses coughing is common, as the horse attempts to clear the blood from its airways.
Horse Cough Treatment
With such a diversity of causes in horse coughing the treatment is very much dependant on the cause. A great rule of thumb for horse affected by influenza, herpes or strangles is to give the horse two days rest for every day of coughing. So the recovery takes twice as long as the illness. A veterinarian is best placed to determine what prescription drugs if any are required to help the horse fight the infection.
Generally however, it is beneficial to reduce the dust in the horse’s environment by moving to dust free bedding and soaking/steaming the horses hay.
Don’t forget an up-to-date vaccination and worming programme can prevent or reduce the severity of many of the common infectious causes of coughing in horses.
If you have any queries on this issue or any other problems you may be having with your horse please contact the Foran Equine team who will be happy to help you.