Coughing in horses
Whether your horse coughs at the start of every schooling session, or they seem to be suffering from a consistent hack, it’s natural to be concerned. There could be a range of reasons for your horse’s cough, and knowing the difference between types of coughs can be helpful.
Remember: If you’re worried about your horse’s sudden or persistent cough, contact your vet!
Why do horses cough?
When your horse’s airways are irritated, your horse will cough to clear them.
There are three phases to a cough:
Phase 1: Your horse will inhale rapidly.
Phase 2: Their upper airways close (nose to windpipe), while at the same time, your horse’s abdominal muscles and chest muscles tighten (to increase pressure in their lungs).
Phase 3: Finally, your horse’s upper airways open rapidly, causing a rush of air that becomes a cough.
Interesting fact: Horses can cough at around 100mph!
What could be causing my horse to cough?
Depending on your horse’s sensitivity, they could develop a cough due to the dust in their food or forage (hay/haylage), the dust in their stable, the pollen count, allergies, or due to an infection.
A myth about choke in horses is that it involves a blockage in their windpipe, but choke in horses actually involves a blockage of the gullet (a tube passing food from mouth to stomach).
Although some horses with choke don’t cough, those who do cough will often produce saliva at the same time.
Possible symptoms of choke in horses include:
- Frothy discharge from their nostrils.
- Repeated attempts to swallow.
- Stretching their neck out.
- Anxious behaviour.
It’s important not to panic if you think your horse may have choke, because they’ll feel more stressed if they sense you’re upset. Call your vet if you notice any signs of choke, since they will be able to advise the best course of action for your horse’s specific situation. Some cases of choke resolve by themselves, though others may require medical intervention.
While waiting for the vet to arrive:
- Try to keep your horse calm, speak to them softly.
- Monitor them.
- Remove all food, water, and edible bedding (e.g. straw) from their stable.
- Gently massage the left side of their neck, over the jugular groove.
If your horse displays any of the following symptoms, call your vet straight away:
- Difficulty breathing.
- They’re distressed.
- Signs of colic.
- Coughing, high temperature, or depression days after having choke.
Sensitivity to dust and/or pollen
Your horse’s environment exposes them to lots of dust and pollen, whether through their hay and bedding or while they’re enjoying time in their field.
Alongside coughing, your horse might show other signs that they’re sensitive (or allergic) to dust and/or pollen:
- Watery, itchy eyes.
- Runny nose.
- Head shaking.
- Lack of energy.
- Decreased endurance while exercising.
Traditionally, equine asthma was known as “COPD”. COPD stands for “chronic obstructive pulmonary disease”. However, you may also hear vets refer to equine asthma as “recurrent airway obstruction” or “RAO”.
Horses with equine asthma will have immune systems that react dramatically to allergens (dust particles, fungal spores, mould, etc.), resulting in symptoms like:
• Coughing (especially while exercising or eating).
• Wheezing while they breathe.
• Runny nose (particularly after exercise).
• Difficulty breathing (often accompanied by sweating and/or flared nostrils).
Please call your vet immediately if you think your horse may have equine asthma.
Does your horse graze with a donkey?
Donkeys are prone to lungworm, and if they aren’t properly wormed, this can have an impact on the horses who share their field. Always speak to your vet about protecting your horse from lungworm if they graze with donkeys.
It is uncommon for horses to get lungworm, however, the signs of lungworm infection in horses can include:
- Severe coughing.
- Loss of appetite.
- Breathing difficulties.
- Secondary bacterial infection.
Creating a suitable worming programme, in collaboration with your vet, will limit the impact of worms and keep your horse feeling healthier!
Infections can cause coughing.
Viral infections, such as equine influenza, result in symptoms such as:
- Frequent, dry cough.
- Runny nose.
- Loss of appetite.
Bacterial infections in horses, such as strangles, might cause the following symptoms:
- Difficulty swallowing.
- Loss of appetite and/or refusing to drink.
- Lowered head and neck.
- Thick nasal discharge.
- Swelling of glands under their jaw (lymph nodes).
- Abscesses in the lymph nodes.
Isolate any horses you think may be suffering from an infection and contact your vet straight away.
For advice about dealing with strangles, visit the British Horse Society (BHS) guide to strangles.
How can I calm my horse’s cough?
Mild coughing can be managed in some horses, as follows:
- Use low-dust options for bedding in their stable.
- Cover their stable floor with rubber matting (so there’s less bedding needed!).
- Ensure there is plenty of ventilation in their stable.
- Allow them to enjoy as much turnout time as possible.
- Use nose nets (attached to the noseband of their bridle) while riding.
- Soak their hay in fresh, clean water for around 20 minutes and let it drain before feeding it to them (be careful in hot or freezing temperatures, though!).
- Feed from the floor (if appropriate for your horse’s situation).
- Gradually change from hay to haylage (if safe to do so for your horse!).
- Keep your horse away from straw/dusty environments (e.g. hay barn).
- Avoid stabling your horse near a muckheap.
- Groom your horse outside, instead of in their stable.
- Muck-out their stable while they’re in their field.
Always speak to a vet to find a suitable solution to your horse’s coughing.
How do I prevent my horse from developing a cough?
Thankfully, steps can be taken to prevent your horse from developing a cough:
- Follow a vet-approved worming programme.
- Keep up to date with vaccinations (especially for equine flu!).
- Dampen their dry feed with a small amount of fresh, clean water.
- Allow plenty of turnout time.
- Ensure their stable is well ventilated.
- Avoid feeding dusty/mouldy hay/haylage.
- Choose a low-dust option for stable bedding (e.g. large-flake shavings).
So, you now know how to recognise the type of cough your horse has and how to manage it appropriately. If, however, you are concerned about your horse’s cough, or they appear to be suffering from choke, please contact a vet.