Ask the Vet: Respiratory Problems

Courtesy of AAEP

Question: My 5-year-old filly starts breathing heavy and coughing when I lope her four or five laps around the arena. Is this from moldy hay or allergies?

Answer: Your filly could be coughing and breathing loud for a number of different reasons/causes, including moldy hay or allergies. To try and determine the source of her cough and respiratory noise, I would start with a good general physical examination by your veterinarian including a good respiratory examination with a rebreathing bag. . The next thing I would do would be perform an upper respiratory endoscopic examination to look at her soft palate and her larynx (opening into her trachea) to make sure she doesn’t have any abnormalities that are attributing to her loud respiratory noise. With the endoscope, the trachea can also be examined for evidence of mucus, which could signify inflammatory airway disease. Some abnormalities can be corrected surgically (epiglottic entrapment, soft palate displacement, laryngeal hemiplegia or “roarer”). If you live in Texas, there is another condition of the upper airway systemic called Cicatrix (scar tissue formation in the nasopharynx) that will result in abnormal and difficult breathing.

If your veterinarian has not performed a BAL (Bronchoalveolar Lavage), I would recommend having that diagnostic test performed on your horse. The test results will let you know if your horse has Inflammatory Airway Disease (IAD). If your horse does have IAD there are certainly ways to manage the condition. Usually some form of corticosteroid therapy (either systemic or inhalant) is necessary to relieve the inflammation and allow for easier breathing. Bronchodilators (systemic Ventipulmin or inhalant Albuterol) are also usually helpful, but often are combined with the corticosteroid therapy. Systemic MSM can also be helpful for some horses. Cough Ease is a natural product that can help some horses that cough.

If your filly has IAD, environmental management is often one of the most important aspects of treatment. If the hay is dusty, it is helpful to wet the hay down at each feeding. The other feeding alternative to try is a complete pelleted diet or cubes, which will decrease the amount of dust, hay pollens, and endotoxins your horse inhales. If the horse is kept in a barn, make sure that it is well ventilated and not dusty. Ideally, it is best to house these horses outside on pasture, although ome horses with IAD are worse on pasture and do better in a non dusty dry lot or stall/run. If the arena where you ride your filly is dusty, it is beneficial to wet down the ground prior to riding.

Question: How do you know when a condition is serious if a horse has a runny nose?

Answer: There are several things that you as a horse owner can do to try and determine if a runny nose is serious or significant.

(1) Monitor your horse’s appetite, attitude, and energy level.

(2) Take your horse’s temperature- normal temperature is between 98 and 101 Farenheit.

(3) Monitor the character of the nasal discharge- purulent (yellow) discharge usually signifies more of an infection (sinus or lower respiratory tract).

(4) Monitor for other signs that may signify a more significant problem- coughing, increased respiratory rate, bad odor associated with the nasal discharge.

Veterinary diagnostics that can be performed to determine the significance of the nasal discharge include bloodwork (to determine whether there is a systemic infection), good respiratory examination (listening to the lungs with a rebreathing exam), possible radiographs of the head to examine the sinuses and teeth (for possible sinus infection, sinus mass, or tooth root infection), upper airway endoscopy to examine the airway, as well as possible cytology and/or culture of the airways to test for (infection, inflammatory airway disease, or small airway disease/COPD/Heaves).

Question: I have an 11-year-old mare that coughs two or three times, blows her nose and is then fine when I first start jogging her during an exercise period. Could this turn into RAO?

Answer: It is still debatable whether inflammatory airway disease (IAD) will later develop into RAO. IAD is considered a younger horse condition that often affects performance horses and does not result in lower airway obstruction as RAO does. The better your horse’s inflammation can be controlled now the less likely your horse will develop future respiratory problems.