Some­times cough­ing is harm­less, but it may be the first sign of se­ri­ous trou­ble. Here’s how to tell the dif­fer­ence.

EQUUS - - Tack & Gear - By Heather Smith Thomas

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.


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

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