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Coughing and Wheezy HorsesCoughing and Wheezy Horses

Johnny Atkins BVSc
Vet Services Dannevirke

The classic ‘coughing horse’ is a common sight and sound at this time of year, and often transient viral respiratory disease is to blame. But as much as we love to blame a virus, they are not always the cause!

This year has seen an influx of allergy associated disease in all classes of stock and pets alike, and the coughing horse is no different.

‘Recurrent airway obstruction’ (RAO) is an allergy/hypersensitivity based disease of the lower respiratory tract. Most often described as ‘equine asthma’ or ‘heaves’, clinical signs vary from a mild cough at exercise, through to exercise intolerance, an obvious ‘wheeze’ and respiratory difficulty. In severe cases the expiratory phase (breathing out) will be split into two phases with an abdominal effort included. The abdominal muscles that assist breathing will become larger and form what is called a ‘heave line’ (see picture).

Most evidence suggests that the disease is due to the lungs’ hypersensitivity to inhaled allergens such as fungal spores, mould, dust and endotoxins. The most common form is seen when horses are stabled and fed hay, both of these practices resulting in increased exposure to potential allergens. However we do see a ‘summer pasture associated’ type of disease as well.

Subsequent inflammation in the lungs causes changes to the lung lining and constriction of the airways. In severe and chronic (long term) cases this can also result in airway thickening and significant lung changes, all of which tend to further exacerbate the disease.

Diagnosis is often based on history, clinical signs and response to treatment. In small ponies and miniatures, radiology may be useful as a diagnostic aid and in others endoscopy (scoping) and lung function testing can be performed as well. The ideal method for diagnosis involves flushing fluid into the lungs and collecting it again in a process called ‘bronchoalveolar lavage’. Analysis of the cell types found in the fluid will give a diagnosis. Generally infection is not present, however due to the lungs’ reduced ability to defend against pathogens, it is possible that some horses may develop a secondary pneumonia which can further complicate the disease.

Treatment of mild cases often respond well to management and dietary changes, including turn out, low dust bedding, change of hay or soaking before feeding. Pasture turn out is often crucial to management of these cases! In more severe cases, change of management should be combined with treatment with bronchodilators (to dilate airways) and steroids (to decrease inflammation). This can initially be in the form of oral treatments, but inhaler therapy is recommended long term. This provides targeted drug concentrations in the lungs with minimal side effects through the body. Putting your horse on an inhaler for its asthma sounds a bit weird, but with some investment in the correct equipment it is a simple, cheap and effective long term treatment protocol!

Due to its allergic/hypersensitive cause, RAO is a lifelong disease and will require long term management and treatment. That being said, early identification of the issue and relevant risk factors make it very controllable, and most horses when managed correctly can live long wheeze-free lives!




Encysted Strongyles – Small worms, big problems

Read more >Thursday 7th of March 2019: âSmall Strongylesâ or âCyathostomesâ are the terms used for a group of over forty different species of parasites affecting horses. They tend to be the most prevalent parasite within the horsesâ gastrointestinal tract and although small, heavy burdens can result in big problems!

Stomach Ulcers and Gastroscopy

Read more >Thursday 7th of March 2019: Stomach ulcers (gastric ulcers) are a hot topic! Stomach ulceration is a somewhat confusing syndrome â the syndrome can have a multitude of clinical signs, ranging from very subtle performance issues, or picky eating, to weight loss and colic. There is also a multitude of products on the market which claim to help with ulcers, not all being equal.

Slug Bait Poisoning

Read more >Friday 30th of November 2018:


Read more >Friday 28th of September 2018: When a flea bites, its saliva causes the dog to itch. Fleas not only cause skin problems for dogs and us but can also cause other disease such as anaemia, flea allergy dermatitis and tapeworms.

Healthy Teeth

Read more >Friday 28th of September 2018: Dogs, like us, have two sets of teeth during their lives. The deciduous (baby) teeth appear shortly after birth and are replaced by the permanents at around four to six months of age. Deciduous teeth cause few problems except where they are retained beyond about eight months of age. If this occurs, displacement of the erupting permanents may result.

Have you got an itchy dog?

Read more >Friday 28th of September 2018: During the spring and summer months we see high numbers of dogs with itchy skin.In the past, the only way to manage atopy (itchy skin) was through medications such as steroids and antihistamines but Royal Canin nutritionists and veterinarians have developed a new Prescription Diet specially formulated to help manage environmental sensitivities in dogs.


Read more >Thursday 30th of August 2018: When a flea bites, its saliva causes the dog to itch. The adult fleas you see on your dog only represent 5% of the whole flea population. Flea problems can appear to come and go. This is because the immature stages of the flea (eggs, pupae) wait in the environment for the right conditions (Warmth, humidity and stimulation) When this happens they tend to hatch all at once onto the unsuspecting animal.


Read more >Thursday 30th of August 2018: Ticks live in areas of long grass and dense shrubs. They wait for animals to come along, and then grab onto their fur. Once on the animal, they find areas of thin skin and attach with cement-like saliva to feed on blood.

Toe Nail Injuries

Read more >Thursday 30th of August 2018: A break in the toe nail or dewclaw causes a cracked nail with an exposed nail bed. This can be extremely painful. If left untreated, nail infections can spread up to the joint of the toe and can lead to irreparable damage such that the toe itself has to be amputated.

Constipation Issues

Read more >Thursday 30th of August 2018: Constipation is an obstruction of the colon with difficulty to pass faeces or the inability to defaecate at all. Clinical signs are:

- Straining to defaecate
- Defaecating small amounts of dry hard firm stool
- Straining with small amounts of liquid stool
- Occasional vomiting
- Not wanting to eat
- Depression / Lethargy

Heat Stroke

Read more >Thursday 30th of August 2018: Heat stroke can be an extremely deadly emergency.

We see it mainly in summer but it can occur at any time.

During hot summer days, start work early if you can. Try to avoid the main hottest parts of the day. If you have large work days, alternate your team, so dogs get a good chance to rest.


Read more >Friday 27th of July 2018:

Equine Annual Warrant of Fitness

Read more >Friday 27th of July 2018: With the equestrian season kicking off in most disciplines, Spring is a good time for your horse to have its annual âwarrant of fitnessâ.


Read more >Wednesday 25th of July 2018: We have had a couple of interesting cases over the last few months where our Vets have been able to use the endoscope to help diagnose and address issues.

The endoscope is a flexible camera/video /light source that we can use to help investigate respiratory tract in horses as they allow us to gain access visually to some of the nooks and crannyâs that make up a horses upper and lower respiratory tract.

Arthritis, not just an old dog problem

Read more >Thursday 29th of March 2018: Arthritis will be in almost all our working dogs by the age of 5. The severity depends on breeding and size of the breed, previous injuries, nutrition and how well they have been looked after.

Medical Management of Arthritis

Read more >Thursday 29th of March 2018: To get the most out of your team, ensure you take measures to keep them comfortable.

Rat Bait

Read more >Thursday 29th of March 2018: Rat bait (rodenticide) poisoning is the most common poisoning we see in the clinic. It generally affects dogs as they are more readily ruled by their stomachs! Rat baits work by preventing the production of clotting factors (anticoagulants). This lack of clotting factors causes prolonged and uncontrolled bleeding which is often fatal if untreated.

Feeding Athletes

Read more >Thursday 29th of March 2018:


Read more >Thursday 8th of March 2018: The transportation of horse to events in NZ [such as HOY] is commonplace but in saying that it needs to be managed to maximise athletic performance, and minimise the risk of any negative impact on horse health. After all it is a long expensive and disappointing trip to an event to have your horse perform below their best.

Road transport can be detrimental to horse's lungs, muscles, gut function and weight

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