Saturday, October 11, 2014

Tips for the Horse Who Coughs

If you have been reading for a while you know that my beloved quarter horse, Harley, has an allergic cough.  His condition gradually emerged just before he turned 14 years old.  I had him blood tested and gave him immunotherapy shots for several years.  His symptoms include a cough which ranges from absent and/or mild to persistent and chronic.  There has been a couple scary situations where he had a near asthma-attack.  The cough can be controlled with bronchodilators (expensive) for immediate relief and steroids (time consuming to give, daily injections for a week) for inflammation of the airways.  Both of these treatments only address the symptoms and are time sensitive, meaning the faster he gets the medicine the less dramatic (hopefully) his coughing spell will be.  At best, his cough is annoying to him.  At worst, the cough can prevent a horse from eating properly, so he cannot maintain condition or deprive him of oxygen to his gut (or stress him enough) and cause colic.  The cough does damage to his airways which is probably permanent and this type of condition tends to worsen with time.  His affliction is often referred to as "heaves", but I do not usually refer to Harley this way, because when I picture a heavy horse, I picture a horse who is standing in the pasture huffing and puffing and basically looking miserable.  That does not describe Harley.  He is not huffing or puffing and most people do not realize that there is anything wrong with him at all, unless they happen to be around when his cough acts up.  There is no cure for allergies, but careful management can make a big difference.  Often management of the horse's environment is just as important as having the right medications on hand in case the symptoms escalate.

I have decided to put together a list of things that seem to be working for Harley.  As always, consult your veterinarian if your horse has a cough for any reason.  A cough in an equine is nothing to sneeze at! 

This is how we roll these days.  No more sandy rings!

 Tips for the Horse Who Coughs:
  1. Offer 24/7 turnout preferably not in a dusty paddock.
  2. Reduce barn time as much as possible (or better yet never bring your horse into the barn).  Find ways to care for your horse in the fresh air.
  3. Do not groom your horse, especially before a ride (if your horse can handle exercise) or if you need to trim his feet .  I have found that not grooming Harley before we ride makes it more likely that a coughing fit will not interrupt our fun and his exercise.  I also cannot trim his feet if he is coughing, so no matter how much I want to wipe off the layer of dirt, I ignore it and focus on his feet instead.
  4. Only groom your horse with a damp sponge/cloth or give him a bath instead of using dusty brushes.
  5. Groom your horse in fresh air.  I have had good luck letting Harley graze while I groom him after a ride.  He seems to be less bothered by the dust when his nose is down toward the ground.
  6. Replace your old dusty brushes!  Keep your grooming tools clean.
  7. Exercise is good for your horse as long as his symptoms are under control.  Figure out what level of activity your horse can handle and adjust accordingly or consider retirement (or semi-retirement).  Harley has been doing well with 30 minutes of exercise at a time.  He is not tired or winded after 30 minutes and could probably go longer, but I don't want to push him to his limit.  I also don't have time for long rides these days (see my last post)!  I would probably ride him for longer than that if we went on a trail ride and the extra time was spent walking.
  8. Do not ride in a dusty arena.  Indoor arenas are most certainly out of the question unless they are meticulously groomed and/or have special footing.  We are having good luck riding on grass.
  9. If you trail ride with others, lead the pack so your horse does not inhale the dust from the other horses.
  10. If you horse is coughing before you pull him from the paddock, he is probably in need of medicine to control his symptoms.
  11. Coughing tends to escalate, so treat symptoms as soon as you notice that they are worse than your horse's normal baseline cough.  This will take some figuring out on the caregiver's part.  Do not expect your horse to "work out of his cough".  This type of cough is NOT the same as the horse who coughs a couple times at the beginning of exercise and then is good to go.
  12. Most importantly, listen to your horse and adjust his care accordingly.  Consult your veterinarian and barn manager.  Work together to improve your horse's living environment so that he can be medication free as often as possible.
Sweet Pea likes sandboxes; Harley does not.

Climbing into the riding ring already!?