The respiratory system is one of the most sensitive systems in the horse's body. Respiratory diseases are more frequent in winter, because horses are exposed to dry and often bad air in stables and halls and are not outdoors enough. Poor stable climate and dust stress the horse especially in completely closed stables, whereas cold temperatures do not do any harm! Coughing is usually not caused by the horse catching a cold, as many people think. But on the contrary, because it gets too little fresh air.
How to prevent?
Healthy respiratory tract needs one thing above all: fresh air. Only then can the lungs remain free of harmful environmental pollutants. Therefore, the first measure for prevention is to get as much outdoor exercise as possible.
Another important preventive or complementary measure are vaccinations. "Usually the starting point for coughs is a viral infection that weakens the covering ties in the airways, making it easier for allergens to penetrate for a period of about six weeks," explains Dr. Bingold. For this reason, the veterinarian advises to vaccinate horses against influenza and herpes. "This means that the worst viral germs as triggers for respiratory problems have already been greatly slowed down," he says.
"Plenty of fresh air, low-dust housing, vaccinate and have an acute cough treated immediately by a veterinarian so that it does not become chronic," is the recommendation of Dr. Christian Bingold for healthy airways.
Photo: equine clinic Grobostheim
Basically, a good immune system protects against infections. This is severely disrupted, for example, when the horse cools down. That's why you should never leave a sweaty horse on the train!
In times that are stressful or strenuous for the organism, such as after a move or during the coat change, special supplementary feeds can also support the immune system of the four-legged friend. Black cumin, for example, has proven its worth. It should strengthen the immune system. Harmonize the respiratory system.
Acute or chronic cough?
An acute respiratory illness usually manifests itself in the form of cough and nasal discharge. If this is mucous-watery, this indicates a viral disease. If it is yellowish and tough, bacteria are probably the culprit. In the case of acute damage to the mucous membrane, even minor stimuli are enough to cause coughing. If the cough subsides, however, this does not necessarily mean that the disease is subsiding. On the contrary. It can also mean that the cough becomes chronic. Because: "If there is a long-lasting mucus build-up, the lungs have often already become accustomed to the irritation and the cough becomes flatter. It is then not as barking as in acute cases and it often requires stronger stimuli to trigger it. When this habituation occurs, the cough subsides or disappears, although there is a disease that continues to fester in the background," explains Dr. Bingold. Horse owners should therefore always have a cough treated by a veterinarian. "Many health problems could be solved more quickly if the owners had their animals treated medically right away," the veterinarian appeals. That is, immediately at the first appearance of a cough, rather than when the horse already has a fever.
How to treat cough?
An acute respiratory infection can be treated well by rest, plenty of fresh air, light exercise (preferably long walks) and the administration of expectorants. If a bacterial infection is present, antibiotics must also be administered.
More difficult is the treatment of chronic coughs. Once this has been done, the most important therapy is to keep the animals in a dust-free environment – without this, no further treatment will work, as Bingold clearly states. "If the cause of the disease is not eliminated, a cure is out of the question. And this is organic dust in the vast majority of cases." Therefore, the simplest diagnostic is to change the horse to an open stall with low-dust bedding as well as feeding, says the veterinarian. "In most chronic coughs, even without further therapy, a significant improvement can be seen after a few days. The veterinarian then has nothing more to treat," says Bingold.
The bad news: By far the highest dust–Concentration is found in hay – mind you, also in good quality hay. In second place comes the straw, and only then the usual indoor arena dust. "Even in an open stall with good hay and straw, the concentration of the harmful substance endotoxin in dust exceeds the limit to which cotton mill workers may be exposed in the workplace," Bingold knows. "Workers develop the same disease as stabled horses at higher exposure levels. The factory worker, however, is only exposed to this dust for a few hours a day, while many horses are for 23 hours. This shows very clearly how important dust reduction is for horses with disease, because these react to the organic dust still around a multiple more sensitively."Fungal spores also play an important role in respiratory problems, and they are also found in much greater quantities in hay than in straw.
Even high-quality hay has high dust concentrations. A good possibility: the open stall. For chronic coughs, however, even there the load can still be too high.
Watering the hay brings some dust reduction, which is enough to relieve coughing in some horses.
Photo: Anna Castronovo
The prerequisite for a cure is therefore a thorough dust removal. Watering the hay brings some reduction, which is sufficient in some horses. "For many animals, however, this method is not adequate," Bingold cautions. His tip: a vaporization system. These can either be bought or made with the help of a barrel and a steamer (z.B. Steam cleaner or wallpaper stripper) build your own. In the case of very sensitive horses, the bedding must be replaced with dedusted wood shavings, hemp straw, flax straw or straw pellets. Feeding should be changed to silage, hay cobs and clean, unshaken forage straw.
Exercise is also important. "Unlike acute respiratory infection, where horses need rest, animals with chronic lung disease should work as much as they can just with their disease", recommends Bingold. But be careful: they must not get into respiratory distress! "Indeed, if horses have to force the air out of their lungs in a pumping breathing pattern, considerable damage is done because the sensitive alveoli cannot withstand the prere and burst," warns the specialist veterinarian. Therefore, the greatest care and good judgment are required when assessing the acceptable and beneficial exposure. Nevertheless: "The less the lungs work and are ventilated, the more mucus accumulates there. So the most effective way of degumming is adapted work without overloading the damaged lungs," explains Dr. Bingold. And: "It is ideal, of course, if the exercise can take place outside in the fresh air."
Drug therapy for chronic respiratory diseases addresses the three basic pillars of the disease: Phlegm, congestion, inflammation. "Successful therapy targets all three components," the veterinarian said. The most important groups of medications here are mucolytics, bronchodilators (drugs that dilate the bronchial tubes) and cortisone.
Cortisone? In the case of recurrent airway obstruction (RAO, formerly steaming), unfortunately, yes. "Cortisone" preparations slow down the influx of inflammatory cells. The release of inflammatory messengers. They protect the airway receptors. Preventing cramps. They also reduce the production of mucus," says the veterinarian, listing the positive properties of the medication.
Many horse owners are nevertheless afraid to give cortisone, as it can cause considerable side effects (e.g., inflammation).B. Laminitis) can have. "When dosed correctly and for a limited time, large horse owners need not fear side effects," Bingold says in this regard. However, caution is advised for ponies and horses that are prone to laminitis.
Medications can be administered with the feed or with the inhaler. Inhalations are generally good for respiratory diseases. "The problem with nebulizing medications is simply the particle size of the mist droplets," specialist veterinarian. "If they are too large, they are already deposited in the upper airways. If they are too small, they are breathed out of the lungs again without settling there. Most of it then ends up in the nose or stomach because it is swallowed with the mucus." He therefore recommends suitable respiratory masks, with which it is also possible to use drugs from human medicine in horses. In the therapy of respiratory diseases also the solution of the mucus plays an important role. This can also work without medication: Through inhalation with physiological or, even better, hypertonic saline solution. For horses with chronic respiratory diseases, the purchase of an inhaler is definitely worthwhile.
To use medications from human medicine ("asthma sprays") in horses, one needs such a spacer.
If there is extreme congestion of the airways, lung lavage may also help. The name is deceptive, because it does not directly flush the lungs. Instead, an extreme amount of fluid (about 30 liters) is introduced into the circulation over a short period of time to cause overhydration of the body. "Then the body tries to excrete the fluid through all the ways available to it," explains Bingold. "One of those pathways is the lungs. This causes fluid to be sweated out through the respiratory tract, allowing the mucus to detach and drain away."
Also homeopathy, Bach flowers–Therapy or traditional Chinese medicine can help prevent and treat coughs. "However, these alternative approaches cannot replace veterinary treatment," says Dr. Bingold clearly. "Because if lasting success is to be achieved with chronic coughs, the cause must be eliminated, and that is and remains organic dust."
The specialist veterinarian therefore sticks to his recommendation for healthy respiratory tracts: plenty of fresh air, low-dust husbandry, vaccination and – importantly – immediate veterinary treatment of acute coughs so that they do not become chronic in the first place.
The most important measures for chronic coughing: put the horse in an open stall, low-dust bedding and change feeding. Often a significant improvement is seen after a few days without further therapy.
Trained as a journalist who turned her passion into a career: Anna writes about equine science, breeding& Sports, Medicine, Attitude& Feeding. she has been riding since she was a child. Owns her own horse.