Every horse coughs sometimes. If it is just an occasional cough, this should not be cause for panic. But if the cough persists for a long time, it could be a sign of a more serious problem. Coughing is a reflex that serves as a defense system for the lungs. The horse’s airways have cilia and mucus-producing cells. These trap dust and pathogens, and by coughing the dirt is brought to the throat. This ensures that the airways remain clean.
There can be several causes for a horse to cough for an extended period of time, but they all have to do with respiratory problems. It may be that the airways are irritated. This can be due to the inhalation of (dust) particles or an allergic reaction. Coughing can also be caused by bacterial infections or viruses. This is often accompanied by nasal discharge (mucus), rapid breathing and fever, depending on the disease. Examples of diseases that have a cough as a symptom are: influenza, respiratory infections, COPD (heaves), rhinopneumonitis and strangles.
Influenza can be compared to a cold or flu in humans, and is caused by a virus. The horse has a slight fever, nasal discharge and may cough. The virus spreads through the water particles released when coughing. The cough is dry and painful at first, but can later turn into a wet cough from mucus build-up. You can vaccinate your horse annually against influenza. A respiratory infection is also caused by a virus. Inflammation of the airways may occur in different parts of the respiratory tract. If it is in the lungs, it is called bronchitis. In addition to coughing, the horse has a fever, nasal discharge as well as an increased heart rate and breathing. If respiratory inflammation is neglected, the horse can become chronically susceptible. In the worst case, COPD develops. COPD, also sometimes called heaves, can be compared to asthma. The airways have become so sensitive to dust and fungi that they are permanently inflamed. The inflammation produces a lot of mucus, which causes the cough. A horse with COPD breathes very heavily and looks lethargic.
Rhinopneumonitis, or rhino for short, is also caused by a virus. It comes in three forms, with coughing being a symptom of the mild form. This form is common, especially in young horses. Other symptoms include fever, nasal discharge, and in some cases, swelling in the legs. Strangles is an acute infection of the throat that is highly contagious, and it also occurs mainly in young horses. In addition to the characteristic abscesses near the throat, a horse with strangles often has a wet, hacking cough. In addition, the horse has a high fever and nasal discharge.
To prevent irritation of the respiratory tract as much as possible, you can take a number of precautions in the stable. Firstly, ensure good ventilation, so that the horses get sufficient fresh air. Make sure that there is no draft, this is again detrimental to health. Also give the horse plenty of fresh air by turning it out regularly. In addition, good and regular mucking out of the stables is important. The ammonia vapors released from urine can be harmful to the respiratory system. Preferably take your horse out of the stable during mucking out, as a lot of dust can be released here. Good quality bedding and roughage are important so that it is free of mold and dust. You can also soak your hay to reduce the dust.
Does your horse suffer from a persistent cough and/or does it have any of the other symptoms (nasal discharge, fever)? Always contact your vet! Coughs can quickly become chronic and the alveoli that stretch can never recover. The vet may establish the cause of the cough and possibly treat your horse.