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Michael Dym, V.M.D.
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Dr. Michael Dym
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What Causes Respiratory Problems In Horses?

When your horse is coughing, sneezing or otherwise suffering from breathing issues, it becomes an immediate cause for concern as it may affect not only their athletic performance, but their quality of life. It’s awful when your horse is unwell, but respiratory issues are common in horses and are often highly treatable and manageable.

What Infections Cause Respiratory Problems In Horses?
One of the most common reasons horses develop respiratory problems is because they have contracted a bacterial or viral infection from another horse.
Strangles, herpesvirus, and even an equine version of the common cold can all give your horse acute respiratory symptoms. It’s possible for horses to shed bacteria or viruses for weeks after they have recovered from an illness, and some shed pathogens even if they are asymptomatic, so it’s best to assume any new horses introduced to your stable and any you meet at competitions or while traveling pose a risk of transmitting an infection to your horse.
Never share equipment between horses and or use communal water sources. If you make direct contact with other horses, always wash your hands before returning to your own horse. Take care with clothing and boots that could be contaminated.
If your horse develops respiratory symptoms and they have a fever, they are likely suffering from an infection. Contact your veterinarian for an examination to determine the severity of the issue and whether your horse just needs rest or requires treatment.

Respiratory Problems In Horses Caused By Their Environment
Not all respiratory problems are contagious.
If your horse has lingering respiratory issues, particularly if no fever is present, they may be experiencing airway inflammation that may be exacerbated by dust in their environment.
Recurrent Airway Obstruction (RAO, also known as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease [COPD] or heaves) is a condition common in older horses that is typically triggered by an allergy to organic dust found in hay.
Inflammatory airway disease or IAD is very common in younger horses, affecting 22%–50% of athletic horses. Symptoms typically only appear with exercise. The horse may cough and have some watery nasal discharge but will otherwise seem healthy. Similar to heaves, IAD is treated through management of allergens. Your veterinarian may prescribe steroids to help control inflammation.

Other Causes Of Respiratory Problems In Horses
If your horse has respiratory symptoms, the underlying cause may not be obvious, and many conditions share symptoms.
For example, coughing, flaring nostrils, and labored breathing can be caused by coronary issues, pain, stress, and trauma. That’s why it’s imperative that you see your veterinarian for a diagnosis and treatment.