Asthma in horses
Equine Asthma, more commonly known as Recurrent airway obstruction (RAO) is a condition characterised by inflammation and constriction of the lower airways. The inflammatory response in the airways can also lead to excess mucus production, which often results in difficulty breathing and coughing in an attempt to clear the airways.
RAO is typically caused by exposure to high concentrations of dust or other allergens that trigger this exaggerated immune response. Horses with seasonal allergies may also develop symptoms of RAO as a result of pollen exposure.
RAO can be uncomfortable for your horse and can result in reduced athletic capacity and limited performance. Many horses who develop asthma may have to retire early from their athletic careers as a result.
Signs of recurrent airway obstruction (RAO):
- Breathing difficulties
- Flared nostrils
- Excessive nasal discharge
- Decreased athletic performance
What to do if you think your horse has RAO:
If you suspect that your horse suffers from RAO it is important to contact a vet as soon as possible. A diagnosis of RAO can often be made based on clinical signs, however some vets may also wish to carry out an endoscopy of the airways to see the extent of the condition.
A range of treatments are available for RAO depending on the severity and the cause of the condition. A vet is likely to prescribe Corticosteroids to help manage the symptoms of RAO. Corticosteroids are normally administered through a specialised equine inhaler which delivers the drug directly to the respiratory tract to help open up the airways and reduce inflammation to allow your horse to breathe easier.
If your horse’s RAO is a result of allergies, your vet may also prescribe anti-histamines to reduce the severity of these. Other recommendations include avoiding turn out when environmental pollen levels are high or if turning out use fine mesh nose nets to minimise inhalation of fine pollen particles.
Unfortunately there is no cure for RAO however with proper management, affected horses can live relatively normal and comfortable lives.
Owners can take several measures to manage their horse’s asthma and allow for easier breathing, these include:
- Mucking out stables thoroughly every day and avoiding deep litter beds to minimise ammonia build up in your horse’s stable environment. Ammonia is a gas which is released, exposure to ammonia can irritate your horse’s airways.
- Using dust free bedding such as dust extracted shavings, paper or hemp will minimise environmental dust exposure. Straw should be avoided as it is prone to becoming dusty and developing mould spores which can irritate the airways.
- Adequate ventilation should be provided year round to minimise the risk of respiratory issues. Stables should be spacious with high roofs to promote air circulation. Stable windows for horses who are stabled in a barn type setting can also be installed to provide extra airflow.
- Avoid inflammatory ingredients which may make inflammation worse. Some things to avoid include corn, soya, molasses and feeds which are high in sugar & starch.
- Soaking hay prior to feeding to reduce dust content - this is not a substitution for feeding a high quality hay. Hard feed can also be soaked or dampened prior to feeding.
- Some horses with RAO will benefit more from being fed haylage instead of hay, as haylage typically has a lower dust content. Unlike hay however haylage should not be soaked prior to feeding as this can cause it to ferment.
- Avoid known allergies - it may also be a good idea to have an allergy test carried out if you are unsure of the exact cause of your horse’s allergies. Most vets will offer this service for a small charge. Horses with pollen allergies may benefit from being stabled when environmental pollen levels are high. Specialised nose nets that are designed to protect the nostrils from pollen inhalation are also available.
- Feed a mucilage such as marshmallow root or chia seeds - when eaten, mucilage forms a protective gel like coating which can help soothe irritated airways. If your horse tends to cough when warming up feeding a small amount of marshmallow root or chia seeds half an hour prior to exercise can be extremely beneficial.
- Feed horses from the ground and avoid using hay nets or hay racks that require your horse to eat with their heads and necks raised. Grazing from the ground encourages natural drainage of the respiratory tract and minimises exposure to dust particles that may cause irritation.
- Avoid feeding anything that will irritate the respiratory tract i.e. black pepper. Many people believe that black pepper needs to be fed alongside turmeric for joint health but there is no scientific evidence to suggest that this is beneficial for horses.
Education and awareness are essential in managing RAO. By spreading knowledge about the condition, its causes, and management strategies, horse owners and caretakers are more informed to take proactive steps in preventing and managing RAO and other respiratory conditions in their horses. In more recent years technologies have been developed for the purpose of minimising environmental dust pollution, these are becoming more and more widely available to not only professionals but every day horse owners. Such technologies are making effective management of respiratory conditions much more achievable.