Harley started coughing last winter at the end of his thirteenth year. After ruling out illness and infection, my vet recommended allergy testing. His blood work came back with a long list of offending allergens and a short list of things to avoid (like apples, sorry Harley). My horse's number #1 persistent allergy symptom is coughing. Thankfully, he does not suffer from itching, irritated eyes, sneezing, hives, or whatever else allergies can plague us with. As an allergy-sufferer myself, I can attest that my horse is lucky to have a short list of symptoms, however, any knowledgeable horse owner or riding enthusiast will tell you that a horse coughing is a big problem. There is also the fact that there is no cure for allergies. My vet tells me to think of "escalation" when I think of allergies. Symptoms tend to worsen over time so speedy intervention is key to keeping an allergic horse comfortable.
Allergies are frustrating, because the onset of symptoms can be unpredictable, but I am well aware of the things that trigger my allergies. When I was growing up in northern New Jersey, I had terrible seasonal allergies. I was also allergic to dust and my two beloved cats. I had to wear a dust mask to clean stalls or dust furniture in my bedroom or I would become a raging-sneeze machine with watering eyes and an insatiable need for tissues. I worked on a 400-acre produce farm with hundreds of acres of sweet corn. My allergies exploded on the days when the corn was pollinating, making it almost impossible for me to survive a work day. When your work environment harbors offending plant-reproductive cells in the very air you are breathing, working in an open-air facility is not a good thing. Did I mention that all of these symptoms arose while on a daily pharmaceutical for allergies? When you have strong allergies, nothing can prevent a serious allergy attack. Benadryl remains the only medicine that can truly halt an allergic reaction for me, but it also puts me to sleep. Once I had to warm up Harry, the Haflinger stallion, at a horse show while in a Bendryl stupor. I had made the mistake earlier of visiting the beautiful and immaculate show barn on the grounds. As clean as it was, the histamine still flowed freely in veins. I was not a happy camper.
By college, I discovered that my allergies were not limited to pollen and cat hair. A steady diet of cafeteria food supplemented by much tastier fast food, culminated in full-body hives. That was horrifying. I have since discovered that sulfite preservatives were most likely the cause and I now avoid them like the plague. Oddly my husband suffers from the same sensitivity, so we scour food labels together looking for any additive including the word or suffix "sulfite" or sulfur dioxide, which is what your body produces by metabolizing sulfite (Since sulfites are not proteins, my reaction is not a true allergy, but I describe it this way, because the suffering is the same! Chemistry Note: "Sulfate" and "sulfite" are not the same polyatomic ions.)
Potentially Interesting Allergy Fact #1:
Sulfites are found naturally on all types of grapes and in pretty much every wine, although you can find a couple labels in liquor stores which claim not to have sulfites. My body shows some warning signs when I have ingested sulfites (in lieu of hives) and this occurs if I eat raisins or fresh, washed grapes. So, no more grapes for me (and I rarely drink wine). Too bad. Grapes and raisins are some of nature's candies.
Potentially Interesting Allergy Fact #2:
There is no such thing as a hypoallergenic dog (or cat, if those exist). This is a hugely false assertion made by those who breed and sell poodles, Bichons, and the like. So-called hypoallergenic dogs have hair that grows like human hair and must be groomed and trimmed regularly. The hair sheds very little and what does shed, has to be brushed free of the rest of the dog's coat. This might be enough to prevent an allergic response in those with mild symptoms, but strongly allergic individuals will not be so lucky. Those of us who are allergic to animals are usually (there are always exceptions in biology) responding to the skin cells of the animal. The hypoallergenic dog will still shed skin cells even if he or she is not leaving much hair on your floor or furniture. The dog's saliva is also full of epidermal (skin) cells. I get (often immediate) raised hives on my skin from a friendly lick from a dog. As another example, my eyes itch and water and sometimes I sneeze from my in-laws' Bichon and this is just from being at their house. I rarely touch the dog. Before I realized that the hypoallergenic dog claim was really false, I tried to be helpful and trim their dog's coat. I had to leave the poor guy half-trimmed, because I literally could not continue to groom him. My allergies were that bad.
Despite my apparent allergic sensitivity to dogs, I tolerated my cats for nearly fifteen years. Living with them dampened my allergic response and I loved them enough to ignore the constant, underlying symptoms they created. Even as a child, I refused to give them away. Thankfully, I am not allergic to my birds or Harley. I really appreciate not being allergic to my own home and horse.
|I wish there was a magic pill for allergies.|
Speaking of Harley, this post was supposed to be about him. The difference between me and Harley is that I could tell quite easily what was contributing to my allergic reactions, especially after repeated episodes. If I avoided or minimized my exposure, I was mostly okay. Since moving to southern New Jersey (far less variety of trees down here and no pet cats any longer), I do not need prescription allergy medication and I do not even take over-the-counter meds unless I have a hive attack. Oh right, and I was never allergy-tested. Harley, on the other hand, was allergy-tested, but it is extremely difficult to tell what will trigger his coughing. He is mostly allergic to tree pollen, but his symptoms are not limited to high pollen or dry days. Sometimes he coughs outside, sometimes in the barn. There have been times when I thought the gasoline or diesel fuel vapors from an idling vehicle made him cough and other times when he did not respond to them. I thought the same thing about a pungent hoof dressing that was being used on another horse (coughing fit). I keep him away from all of those things just in case. Sometimes he barely coughs for an entire ride, other times he has persistent fits and we have to cut it short. I have watched him eat hay many times and this does not seem to make him cough (so we do not wet it down), but yesterday I let him graze a bit on succulent, new grass and he had a coughing fit. Was it the dry leaves he pushed aside with his muzzle? I have been searching and record-keeping for patterns, but they are so difficult to nail down.
Until now. I think I finally have a reaction timeline. Harley needed to go on medicine (in addition to his regular immunotherapy shots) in September, January, and now this week, in April. Those are about four-month intervals and approximately in line with seasonal climate change and the growth that ensues. I know that fall and spring are high pollen and mold times, but the January one still makes me scratch my head. He had coughing trouble right after the New Year. It was very cold. He also had a day of coughing here and there when we had a warm spell and then it would go away when the thermostat dropped. Isn't that weird? I thought his airway was sensitive to the cold. Could it be the change in temperature that bothers him?
I rode him lightly from February until the end of March with minimal symptoms. In fact, he seemed to be coughing less and less as we approached the end of March. And then quite suddenly on Monday, he was having multiple coughing fits and I had to start a round of medicine to get his coughing under control. The temperature was 60 degrees and we had absolutely beautiful weather, but the pollen was high. Grooming sent him into coughing fits on Monday and Tuesday. I certainly hope my horse is not allergic to himself. I am only half-joking.
What do September, January, and April all have in common that could make a sensitized airway upset?