Coughing in colder weather, should you be concerned?


Horse Health Sponsored by Cornerstone Equine Veterinary Services.

While most people and horses find relief in breathing the cool, crisp air in colder months, the change in temperature can also bring an increased risk of respiratory disease in horses. No, it’s not the cold air itself that brings the risk, but rather changes in the way horses are managed during the winter months. Especially for horses that are primarily kept outside during the summer but moved to stalls in the winter, this risk increases.

Air quality is directly linked to respiratory problems in horses. Barn ventilation and adequate turnout are the two most important tools in reducing the incidence of problems. Horses should be moved outside during barn cleaning and left out until the dust settles. Ammonia is a strong irritant to lung tissue, so daily stall cleaning is a must.  Bedding and manure should be piled at a distance form the barn and preferably down-wind to keep noxious orders, like ammonia, away from horses. Keeping your horse in a clean air environment helps to keep his lungs healthy.

Minimizing airborne irritants and allergens such as dust, mold, endotoxins, and ammonia will also keep lung tissue healthy. Soaking hay for 30 minutes prior to feeding will cut down dust without stripping too many nutrients out of the hay. It’s important to always feed horses from the ground so any dust falls down. Feeding from hay racks or hay nets increases dust entering the horses respiratory system. Storing hay in a separate building from stalls further reduces dust near horses. Clean air equals happy lungs.

Nutrition plays a role in all animal health and even air quality. Excess protein in the diet leads to an increase in the noxious gas ammonia in stalls. Horses who are low in zinc and Vitamins C & E can also be at a greater risk of respiratory disease. These antioxidants may need to be supplemented to treat horses with breathing difficulties or respiratory disease. Your veterinarian or equine nutritionist can help evaluate your horse’s need for supplements. “A little bit extra” is not always a good thing, so ask a professional.

Just like people, horses with asthma (recurrent airway obstruction) can find colder air triggers breathing problems. For these horses it’s even more important to be aware of air quality in the barn or shed. 

Additional management tools are biosecurity and preventative health. Washing hands and shared equipment frequently helps decrease virus transmission between horses. Sick horses should be immediately isolated and returned to the herd after your vet gives the all clear. Horses that travel off the farm should ideally be kept separate from the herd, especially from the young and older horses who are more vulnerable to respiratory disease. Regular vaccination can help reduce the incidence of the most common respiratory viral infections for horses: EHV 1 & 4, Streptococcus Equi (Strangles), and Equine Influenza.

Knowing your horse’s “normal” is vital to  finding any illness at the onset. Symptoms of respiratory disease included: increase in cough, nasal discharge, wheezing, difficulty breathing, decreased ability to work, temperature, and increased or shallow breathing. A call to your veterinarian when you notice any of these signs is important to prevent worsening of disease.

Excellent management of the horse’s environment is the very best way to prevent respiratory disease. While your veterinarian can treat disease, careful assessment of the horse’s environment is key to long-term success in treating and preventing respiratory disease in horses. 


Michele Harn

Michele is a Contributing Writer for the Horse Review. She has been involved with horses in many different areas. At 4 years old, a Welsh pony started her on the road to riding and competing. Michele is experienced in Western, Saddle Seat, Barrel Racing, Dressage, Fox Hunting and Carriage Driving. She moved to the Mid-South from Wisconsin in the summer of 2021.

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