Sometimes coughing is harmless, but it may be the first sign of serious trouble. Here’s how to tell the difference.
ny horse occasion larly if nosef air o of d ai he’s eating or drinking. That’s just a normal sign of a healthy airway keeping itself clean. Sometimes, however, coughing is an early sign of illness or that your horse is developing an inflammatory condition, such as heaves, that will respond better when treated promptly. And in some circumstances---such as just after coming out of a trailer after a long ride---even a single cough or two may signal a life-threatening infection that requires immediate veterinary care. Knowing when to call the veterinarian for a coughing horse requires good judgment, but some indicators clearly signal the need to act. Call for help sooner rather than later if you notice the following in your horse.
COUGHS THAT PERSIST THROUGHOUT A RIDE
It’s not unusual for a horse to cough once or twice as he begins exercising. “There might be a small amount of debris and/or mucus in the upper airway [the sinus or nasal area], and the horse just needs to clear that out at the start of work,” says Virginia Buechner-Maxwell, DVM, DACVIM, of Virginia–Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine in Blacksburg, Virginia.
However, coughing that continues throughout a ride may indicate the presence of a respiratory infection or other more serious problems. “These coughs are cause for concern, especially if they are performance-limiting,” says Amy Johnson, DVM, DACVIM, of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. “If the horse is having trouble breathing or seems a little short of air, or is acting less energetic than usual, halt the ride and try to find out why he is coughing.”
The problem could be a physical abnormality. “Occasionally we see horses with upper airway problems, as when the palate is displaced when exercising,” says Johnson. “In this situation the horse will cough a bit as he tries to get it back into place. This would usually occur during work and be more of a dry cough.” Coughing throughout exercise could also be a sign of inflammation in the airways stemming from any number of potential sources.
Even the occasional exerciseinduced cough might be worth investigating. “This sort of cough is likely not a sign of serious disease, but chronic coughing is never normal,” says Buechner-Maxwell. “The first step to eliminating this cough is to examine the environment to determine if there is a source of debris or dust that could be inducing this response. If the cough persists, even if it is minor, have your veterinarian evaluate your horse, in case