Respiratory disease – one of the biggest problems in horses
By Judith Schmidt, Product Manager On-Farm Solutions
The respiratory tract in horses is prone to various problems, ranging from allergic reactions and inflammation to severe infections. Respiratory diseases are a constant topic of suffering and irritation in horse breeding and keeping. According to a study published in 2005, respiratory diseases account for about 40 % of all equine internal diseases recorded worldwide (Thein 2005). Through early diagnosis, appropriate treatment, and preventive measures, horse owners can help maintain the respiratory health of their horses and promote their well-being and performance.
The horse’s lung – a high-performance organ
The respiratory tract of our horses is a high-performance system with a large surface, allowing the exchange between the inside of the body and the environment. The lungs enable the gas exchange, i.e., the transfer of oxygen from the air into the horse’s bloodstream and the discharge of CO2. A functioning gas exchange is crucial for the horse to supply its muscles with sufficient oxygen and perform.
Even when resting, a 600-kg horse breathes about 50 to 80 liters of air per minute into its lungs. With increasing load, this value can rise to 2.000 liters per minute at maximum load. If a horse is healthy, it breathes calmly and slowly and takes eight to sixteen deep breaths per minute.
A special mucous membrane covering the entire respiratory tract protects the lungs from harmful influences. When irritated by pathogens or foreign bodies, this mucous membrane generates higher amounts of mucous and transports it toward the mouth cavity with the help of the finest cilia. In this way, most harmful particles are usually trapped quickly, reliably, and, above all, effectively and, if necessary, coughed up before they can even reach the alveoli and cause damage there.
The most common respiratory diseases in horses
Chronic obstructive bronchitis
Chronic obstructive bronchitis is better known as COB or equine asthma. COB is more common in horses regularly kept in dusty or poorly ventilated environments, such as cramped stables or pastures with high mold levels. Inhalation of dust particles and allergens can cause respiratory tract inflammation, leading to coughing, increased mucus expectoration, and breathing difficulties. The clinical picture of COB can vary greatly. From occasional poor performance in show horses to chronic coughing with purulent nasal discharge or significant weight loss.
Another common respiratory disease in horses is tracheitis, often caused by bacterial or viral infections. Young and older horses and those with a weakened immune system are particularly susceptible to tracheitis. Besides infections, factors such as dust, smoke, or chemicals can also irritate the mucous membrane of the trachea and trigger inflammation.
Hay fever, also known as allergic respiratory disease or rhinitis, is a common condition affecting horses. Known to humans, it is an allergic reaction to certain pollen, molds, or other environmental allergens that are present in the air. Common signs include sneezing, a runny nose, and itchy eyes. However, some horses may also suffer from coughing or respiratory symptoms. Hay fever in horses can occur seasonally, depending on the pollen emerging, and the symptoms may be more severe during spring, summer, or autumn.
Asthma in horses, also known as equine asthma or heaves, is a chronic respiratory disease similar to asthma in humans in many ways. The main cause of this disease is hypersensitivity of the respiratory tract to dust, allergens, or mold spores in the horses’ environment.
How to differentiate between respiratory distress and harmless rattling?
Horse owners know it – the four-legged friends have an impressive range of breathing sounds. But which are harmless, such as the exited trumpeting through the nostrils during a fright, and which could be respiratory disease symptoms?
Diagnosing respiratory problems in horses can be challenging because symptoms are often non-specific signs and similar to several diseases.
Snorting: When horses snort, it is a sign of relaxation. There is usually no cause for concern—quite the opposite.
Snorting at a gallop: Many horses snort rhythmically at a gallop, which is also considered harmless. Snorting is particularly common in thoroughbreds.
Coughing during, e.g., trotting: Occurs so frequently that it is often perceived as usual. But it is not. Coughing is always an alarm signal and can indicate an allergy, asthma, or a viral or bacterial infection.
Whistling when inhaling: In this case, to be on the safe side, a veterinarian should be consulted.
What are the consequences of respiratory disease?
Respiratory disease in horses can have significant economic consequences. If a horse suffers from chronic obstructive bronchitis or another respiratory illness, this can lead to various problems:
- Veterinary costs increase: Diagnosing and treating respiratory diseases often require veterinary visits, medication, and possibly further examinations such as x-rays or endoscopy.
- Performance decreases: A horse with respiratory problems may have severely limited performance. It may have difficulty breathing, negatively affecting its athletic performance, equestrian work, or other activities.
- Downtime: During the treatment or recovery, horses may have to take a break or be taken out of training, resulting in loss of income, especially if the horse was intended for competition or show.
- Decrease in value: A horse with chronic respiratory problems may lose its value as a sport or breeding horse. The demand for that horse and, therefore, the selling price might decrease.
Early diagnosis and treatment are crucial for containing the economic impact. However, the best strategy is to minimize the risk of respiratory disease by appropriate preventive measures.
Preventing cough in horses is considerably important to reduce the incidence and severity of respiratory disease. Several measures can be taken to achieve this goal:
- A clean horse stable is crucial: Dust is a common trigger of respiratory symptoms in horses. Removing dust, dirt, and mold spores regularly from the stable and horse boxes can help improve air quality and reduce respiratory stress.
- Allow horses to breathe fresh air with efficient pasture management: When possible, horses should have access to fresh pastures. The natural outdoor environment helps horses breathe cleaner air and inhale fewer harmful particles.
- Hay feeding should not increase exposure to allergens: The exposure to allergens can be reduced by choosing high-quality, low-dust hay. Moist soaking of the hay before feeding can also help reduce dust levels.
- Ventilation ensures air exchange: Appropriate ventilation in the stable is essential to avoid stagnant air and dust accumulation. The use of fans or natural ventilation systems can improve air circulation.
- Feed management: High-quality feed free of molds and allergens can reduce the risk of respiratory problems. It is vital to adjust feed rations to the individual needs of each horse.
- Supplements support hygiene measures: Supplements can play a positive role in preventing respiratory problems in horses if used selectively and with expert advice.
- Immune system support: Supplements such as vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants can strengthen the immune system. A healthy immune system helps the horse to better defend itself against infections and inflammation of the respiratory tract.
- Certain supplements contain ingredients with anti-inflammatory properties, such as omega-3 fatty acids or herbal extracts. They can help alleviate inflammation in the respiratory tract and thus reduce the risk of respiratory problems.
- Supporting respiratory health: Some supplements on the market have been specially designed to support respiratory function. They help regulate mucus production, improve respiratory protection, and facilitate the expectoration of mucus.
- Strengthening lung capacity: Certain ingredients in supplements can support the horse’s lung capacity and promote better oxygen uptake, which is essential for performance and respiratory health.
Respiratory health is essential for horses. So, you should consult the vet in case of noticeable breathing sounds, coughing, fever, or a drop in performance. Respiratory diseases tend to become chronic and long-term problems if they are not treated appropriately. Fresh air and species-appropriate husbandry, feeding dust- and mold-free feed are the first steps to support the normal function of your horse’s respiratory tract. A holistic approach to equine health, including proper stable and feed hygiene, sufficient exercise, and good air quality in the stable is crucial. Appropriate feed supplements can be an excellent tool to round this approach off.
Handbuch Pferd: Dr. med. vet. Peter Thein, 2005
Tierklink Kaufungen (2016): Chronische Obstruktive Bronchitis (COB), Barbara Liese & Dr. Kristian Sander