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Home:Equine Diseases: Equine Respiratory Diseases

Equine Diseases


Equine respiratory problems are subject to a number of conditions that affect the respiratory tract, ranging from infections and allergies to anatomical defects. Some equine respiratory problems lead to coughing whilst others result in a nasal discharge from the nose or abnormal respiratory noise. If you notice serious symptoms or changes in your horse's breathing it is always advisable to contact your vet.

The equine respiratory system includes all the organs and structures which are related to breathing, namely the nose, the pharynx (or throat), the larynx (or 'voice box'), the trachea (or 'wind pipe') and the lungs. 'Airway' is another term for the respiratory tract.

Equine respiratory problems are more common than ever. Current statistics show that one in six of the UK's horse population suffers with Respiratory problems. Equine respiratory problems are somewhat similar to asthma in humans.


The major causes of equine respiratory problems are

  • Bacterial and Viral infections - such as equine influenza and strangles, pneumonia, herpesvirus, adenovirus and rhinovirus
  • Parasitic infections - Parasites - worms being the most common
  • Allergies – such as pollen and dust. The term used to describe respiratory allergy in horses is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) – see “Equine Diseases” on this site.
  • Anatomical problems – physical problems relating to the respiratory tract which could block the airways.
  • Exercise-induced respiratory problems - e.g. ('bleeder') – EIPH Exercise-induced pulmonary haemorrhage - after exercise your horse may suffer nosebleeds
  • Stable management – check if enough attention being paid to removal of dust, pollens, mould spores etc.


If you notice any of the following symptoms, your horse may have equine respiratory problems.

  • Production of excess mucus
  • Regular cough - particularly when the horse is exposed to dust or mould spores or when exercised.
  • Nasal discharge
  • Reduced tolerance to work
  • Abnormal respiratory sounds
  • High temperature
  • Depression
  • Wheezing
  • Loss of Appetite
  • Sweating.
  • Flaring nostrils.
  • Flanks heaving when breathing – “heaves”


Your vet will examine your horse thus:

• Checking temperature, pulse and respiration rate.

• Checking for nasal discharge

• Ascertaining the type of cough, i.e. harsh, dry, hacking, deep

• Listening to your horse's trachea and both sides of its lungs via stethoscope to establish cough sounds.

• Tran tracheal wash - a fluid sample may be taken from the trachea and send to a laboratory for analysis

• Chest x-rays may be taken

When all this has been done, your vet will then be able to diagnose the most relevant treatment for your equine respiratory problems. Treatment can be in the form of two main treatments for equine respiratory disease. These are drugs that dilate the bronchioles and those that decrease the inflammation within the lungs.

One choice is the drug clenbuterol which is given orally twice a day. Another choice might be corticosteroids , which reduce the inflammation associated with equine respiratory illnesses.

Your vet might also suggest the use of some human asthma drugs using a tight fitting mask.

Sometimes medical therapy is not enough and surgical intervention may be required. Most of the upper equine respiratory problems can be treated as “repairs” i.e. if there is an obstruction in the inflow and outflow of air, it can be cut back or removed surgically.

Low level laser has been successfully used to treat equine respiratory tract infections. There is a massage treatment available which can improve a horse's comfort level and reduce stress associated with congestion and coughing during equine respiratory illness. There is another treatment available for equine respiratory problems which involves infra-red external irradiation of the neck and throat.

The holistic approach to equine respiratory problems has been of enormous benefit. Herbal medicine has been gaining in popularity as education and information on more natural ways to address equine problems come into the public domain. There are special blends of herbs to assist in the healthy breathing of the horse. Echinacea has been t raditionally used to maintain a healthy equine respiratory system and to boost the immune system and is very as a natural supplement during the winter months or as an extra boost during the competition season to help with equine respiratory problems.

Most of the products associated with the holistic approach can be accessed and purchased online.

None of the above treatments will be of much benefit if your stable management routine is not of the highest quality. To ensure a good regime, you should

  • Turn your horse out as much as possible
  • Only use best quality bedding materials preferably shavings or shredded paper to ensure dust-free bedding
  • Feed the best quality hay available and consider soaking it over night with water.
  • Consider using a hay alternative such as haylage.
  • Make sure the stable ventilation is adequate
  • Make sure the stable is very clean, particularly the walls and food containers
  • Remove any unwanted food from the bowl to avoid mould growths
  • Feed your horse at floor level, as lowering his head will help to clear secretions from the lungs
  • Avoid exercising or working your horse in dusty riding schools