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Treating a coughing horse

From: Cindy

Dear Jessica, my name is Cindy, I'm 52 and just purchased a 16 year old Quarter Horse for myself and my 11 year old daughter. Needless to say it's a great learning process. Long story short, I board her at a stable who owned her, she didn't have to move or change her food and water or schedule. She has developed a cough, persistent now for about 2 months, only when ridden now, at first all the time. Hay is dry but doesn't appear to be real dusty. No mold that I can detect visually, seems to be a very caring and knowledgeable stable owner, also has become my friend. She has been giving her shots of penicillin for which she says "she has a cold, I'll just keep giving her this penicillin". Being in the medical profession I know that a cold is a virus and won't respond to that. Which she hasn't. Ynless she develops pneumonia. Yikes!!!!! I feel soooooo bad for my darling horse, she gets a runny nose after being ridden, seems to breath hard. I am told it's nothing and she's ok, my instincts say not. Please help me? Thank you so much in advance, I know you will be able to steer me in the right direction. Appreciate you being there greatly. Cindy and Olivia

Hi Cindy! Congratulations on your new horse - and get ready to call your veterinarian as soon as you finish reading this.

Your instincts and your professional expertise are both warning you that something is wrong - listen to them. WHO told you that two months of a chronic cough, wheezing, and a runny nose were "nothing"? If it was your vet, then you need a different vet. But it doesn't sound as though you've consulted a vet about this, and THAT is what you need to do right now, today.

Your barn owner may be caring, but you should not defer to her "knowledge" in this matter. Specific antibiotics should be given for a specific reason. What signs of infection has the mare shown? What has her temperature been during these last two months whilst the barn owner has been injecting her with penicillin? Why is the mare IN the barn at all, if she's been coughing?

You are entirely correct: antibiotics won't help if your horse has a virus. As you also no doubt know from your professional experience, antibiotics are terribly overused by people who keep them on hand and use them to "treat" themselves, their animals, and, for that matter, their children! Administering antibiotics over many weeks creates risks of its own, even when the antibiotics are prescribed in specific amounts for a precisely-diagnosed condition. Administering antibiotics over many weeks without even a diagnosis of the problem is both irresponsible and dangerous.

Respiratory problems in horses are NOT trivial. An occasional cough should catch your attention; a chronic cough means that you should call the vet. The longer a cough goes untreated - or treated incorrectly - the greater the possibility that the horse will suffer permanent damage to its respiratory system. If you have a good horse-care book or vet book handy, you can get some good basic information on this. Look it up under "COPD" (chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder), "chronic respiratory disease", and "heaves".

You need to bring a good equine veterinarian to the barn, or take your mare to a good equine veterinary clinic. I would advise that you first bring in a good veterinarian, because it will be helpful to have him evaluate the mare's environment. Coughing has a good many causes - hay dust is the obvious "usual suspect", but arena dust and seasonal allergies are also possible causes of coughing. A coughing horse has an actual infection of some kind, viral or bacterial, in which case medical treatment would be indicated, but that treatment must be prescribed by a competent equine veterinarian, and based on a clear diagnosis. You need to find out exactly what is wrong with your mare so that she can be treated appropriately, and that requires medical expertise.

Don't be surprised if your vet suggests a drastic change in the way your mare is being managed - changing a horse's environment is usually the very first line of defense against a chronic cough.

There are many environmental factors that can irritate a horse's respiratory system, including badly polluted air, tree or other pollens, heavy dust from crops that are being harvested up-wind of the pasture, etc. However, the most common environmental offenders are HAY dust and ARENA dust. At a well-run barn, whenever an otherwise healthy horse develops a cough, the manager would take the horse's temperature and ring the vet. In the absence of an elevated temperature, the barn owner's "first response" should be to get that horse OUT of the barn and into a field with a shelter, and to begin soaking its hay before feeding it. If a horse is just beginning to develop a reaction to mold spores, the change to a cleaner environment may be enough to solve the problem. If the problem is more advanced, more drastic measures may be called for - some horses can't be fed any hay at all, and can't even be NEAR hay, and simply can't be kept in a barn.

Barn design, stall ventilation, and hay quality and storage vary widely - these are things that your vet will be able to observe when he comes to the barn. He'll be able to point out any obvious management problems, and make suggestions about helpful changes. Just because a horse develops a cough doesn't mean that there's anything wrong with the hay itself. ALL hay contains a certain number of mold spores. Hay doesn't have to be terribly dusty or have visible mold - even the very best hay can cause a problem if a horse has become sensitized to mold spores and hay dust. If the hay is stored in the same building as the horses (bad idea), it's much more likely to be a problem. If it's stored over the horses' stalls (extremely bad idea), the problem is likely to be more severe. But once a horse begins to react strongly to hay, or rather to the mold spores in hay, it may not be able to live in a stall even if the barn is relatively clean - that is, even if the ventilation is excellent and the hay is stored in a separate building, as it should be, and brought into the barn only when the horses are fed.

If your horse had just begun to cough a few days ago, and you had called the vet out, you would probably already be taking all of the standard management precautions - that is, keeping the horse outdoors, away from the barn, arena, and hay, and soaking the horse's hay for several hours before feeding it.

These are still good practices, but don't try to implement them first and then call the vet in a week or two - call the vet NOW. Change the horse's environment, get her away from the hay dust, and call the vet at the same time. This problem has been going on much too long. Viruses don't typically last for two months. A mild bacterial infection that responds to penicillin, if caught early and then diagnosed and treated correctly, shouldn't last for two months either. A bacterial infection that responds to penicillin should do so fairly quickly - if it doesn't, there could be any number of reasons. Penicillin might not be the correct antibiotic in this case, but that's not something you can guess without knowing which bacteria are involved. Or, penicillin might BE the correct antibiotic - but the penicillin that's left in an old bottle in the barn refrigerator (or that hasn't even been refrigerated!) might be useless. Even if the bottle is new, the penicillin is fresh, and the bottle has been kept refrigerated, the person perfoming the injection might not know the correct amount to inject, or might not read the numbers on the syringe correctly, or might draw the drug from the bottle without first being sure that it's actually in suspension, and not sitting untouched at the bottom of the bottle.... etc., etc. Whatever the initial cause of your mare's cough, you can't allow this situation to continue. Be SURE to tell the vet about the penicillin - it may affect the diagnosis itself, as well as any medical treatment that may follow.

I know that you're new to horse ownership, and right now, I'm sure you must feel as though you've jumped into the deep end of the pool without knowing how to swim! This situation is a good illustration of three problems that new horse-owners often experience.

  1. Since you know that you don't know very much yet, you tend to want to defer to the authorities - that's good in principle, but you have to be careful to choose your "authorities" wisely, and try to figure out whether they have genuine expertise. Horse ownership, barn ownership, and years of experience CAN add up to expertise - but that's not always the case.

  2. New horse-owners are often so worried about being TOO worried that they don't worry when they should worry. For fear of being thought of as overanxious neophytes, and because they "don't want to waste the vet's time", they will often - too often - avoid calling the vet until there is a huge, obvious problem. Don't make this mistake, either. Some problems are "Red Alert" ones that mean you should ring the vet immediately: colic is one, and anything involving a horse's eye is another. A persistent cough is a "call the vet" problem, too.

  3. When you have a child, you have a pediatrician, right? When you own a horse, you have a vet. In both cases, you are totally responsible for the health and welfare of another being, and you need medical advice and help from a qualifed professional whom you can trust. In both cases, the medical professionals would MUCH prefer that you call them with questions and concerns when a problem begins, or when you think that a problem MIGHT be beginning. It's almost always easier, less stressful, and less expensive to head off a problem early - it's harder, more stressful, more expensive, and sometimes not even possible to fix a problem that's been going on for months. Don't worry about seeming ignorant - put your horse's welfare FIRST and call the vet and ask. What's the worst, most embarrassing thing that could happen? Your vet is unlikely to be unpleasant or sarcastic or unkind. If your vet makes an extra trip to the barn, checks out your horse, and finds that nothing is wrong, it's actually rather comforting to be told "Oh, this isn't serious, I didn't need to come out for this". It's much better than being told "I sure wish you'd called me when this started." When little alarm bells are going off in your head because something just doesn't make sense to you in light of your own medical or other knowledge, call your vet and ask.

  4. TRUST those little alarm bells. This may be your first horse, but you're a mature adult who already understands what it means to have full responsibility for another living being. You have a child, so I know you've already been through this! Use the instincts that you've developed during the last 11 years of raising your daughter, and trust your own good judgement a little more.

  5. Whenever you're in doubt, because you feel that there's something medically wrong but a (non-medical) person is assuring you that there is "nothing" wrong - and (didn't this strike you as peculiar?) that the way to treat "nothing" is with injections of penicillin, or in any other case when you're being actively discouraged from seeking proper professional help for something you feel is a genuine problem, try this little exercise: Pretend that someone else is telling you this story, and substitute "child" for "horse" - in your case, substitute "daughter" for "mare".

You're in the medical field - think about how you would react if another mother said to you "My daughter has been coughing for two months, first all the time, and now she's still doing it after exercise, and her nose runs... but no, she hasn't seen the pediatrician. I haven't called him. My babysitter says "It's nothing, she has a cold", and she had a bottle of leftover antibiotics, so she's been giving my daughter penicillin shots for the last two months. I guess she can just go on doing that forever and maybe the cough will stop eventually. I really like my babysitter, and she's done babysitting for a lot of kids, and I only have one daughter, so I'm sure that my babysitter knows much more than I do, in fact she's probably just as good as a doctor, babysitters can diagnose and prescribe and treat, can't they?"

I'm guessing that you would do your very best to persuade this imaginary mother to do the right thing for her child - and I'm hoping that you will now pick up the telephone and do the right thing for your horse.

Good luck, and please let me know what happens.


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