Dr. Janelle D. Tirrell, DVM of Third Coast Equine in Palermo has been practicing in Maine for over a decade. When she was in school at Michigan State University, she heard an often-repeated saying from those who studied equine airway disease: “Horses are best kept indoors outside.”
This contradictory piece of wisdom speaks to the challenge of creating an environment that balances good equine health and with the practical necessity of shelter and boarding. That challenge is part and parcel of diagnosing what today’s veterinarians refer to as Inflammatory Airway Disease, or IAD. Symptoms that can range from runny nose to laborious breathing can frustrate horse owners stymied by tracing symptoms to a cause. But once a diagnosis is made, a seemingly complex ailment can often be eliminated with relatively simple treatments.
Upper & Lower Airways
For horses, inhaling dust, grasses, pollen, and other air pollutants can trigger dry cough, sneezing, and runny nose – familiar symptoms to humans who suffer similarly with allergies. Such symptoms are indicative of irritation in the upper airway, and can vary in severity. And, for horses already coping with COPD or asthma, these diseases can be exacerbated by adding an allergy on top of them.
Uncovering exactly what allergens affect a horse can be as individual as the horse itself. Dr. Tirrell recalls a case of a horse that presented with a persistent cough even though the owners had made many environmental adjustments. “When we finally tested him (using a simple blood test), we found out he was terribly allergic to cats,” she said. It wasn’t until the key allergy was treated — using allergy shots — that this cat-sensitive equine was able to find relief.
Another form of IAD occurs in the lower airway. When irritation gets into the bottom into the lungs, horses will have trouble getting oxygen across the wall of the lung into the blood. Because the lungs are less elastic, they also have difficulty exhaling that air back out, pushing it out in a forced puff. It’s that abdominal push that often indicates to owners that the horse having difficulty breathing. Constriction and buildup of mucus can exacerbate the condition, but lower airway irritation is curable when working with a vet on proper diagnosis and ultimately treatment, which can include managing the horse’s environment, or prescribing bronchodilators, inhalers, steroid treatments and injections.
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder (COPD), heaves, Recurrent Airway Obstruction (RAO) or Inflammatory Airway Disease (IAD) – what’s the difference? Find this helpful breakdown of today’s terminology at Veterinary Practice News
Where IAD is concerned, the amount of time a horse is kept outside is a primary concern. Experts have made recent estimations that 50% of performance horses suffer with some sort of IAD, and many incidences are likely to be traced to circulation inside the barn. Issues can arise both inside and out (as Dr. Tirrell’s adage indicates), but boarding time is a common factor to poor airway health, especially in cold climates. Here in Maine, for example, winter naturally means more barn time and more risk of exposure to dust.
Managing horses with allergies will typically mean minimizing dust levels. Turning a horse out as often as possible is a favorable solution. Reducing dust in the barn can be done by using quality haylage or vacuumed-packed hay, or by routinely wetting hay. Many experts recommend rubber mats to moderate dust from bedding, and straw bedding alternatives such as shredded paper or shavings, and stables that are well-ventilated and clean. Veterinarians also caution against rolled bales which harbor mold and lend to horses pulling hay from the middle where it is more likely to harbor mold. Dr. Tirrell recommends horses always eat on the ground, whether they are feeding on concentrate or forage, so the head is down. Pulling hay off a hay bag or hay rack that is suspended at head level, she cautions her patients, means a horse is standing in a cascade of irritating dust.
Treating airway irritation can be challenging because of the multiple considerations in play and because, like humans, individual horses react individually to their environment. Owners can sometimes be frustrated when they consistently see a horse experiencing symptoms without knowing the specific stimulus. “Once owners facing the onerous cost and the time commitment required to get the horse well reach a level of frustration, that’s when the time and cost becomes less onerous,” said Dr. Tirrell, stressing that proper treatment relies on cooperation between owner and veterinarian. When both engage in the process of diagnosing, managing and treating problem of the individual horse, both horse and owner can look forward to positive outcomes so both can breathe easily.