Winter sees many horses stabled for longer periods than they would be during the summer months and this can lead to problems if your horse suffers from COPD.
What is COPD?
COPD is also known as allergic respiratory disease; Recurrent Airway Obstruction (RAO) or in very severe cases, ‘heaves’.
The allergic reaction occurs when horses that are sensitive to certain allergens inhale something that triggers an allergy. The airways become inflamed and constricted; and the amount of mucus and inflammatory material produced by the horse increases.
The horse may appear more lethargic than usual especially during exercise. He will probably develop a cough when he’s ridden and may have a thick, yellow nasal discharge from one or both nostrils. He may also begin to make a noticeable breathing ‘noise’ during exercise. It’s unlikely he will have a temperature and his appetite will remain unaffected.
It is very important that the disease is managed correctly as soon as it is recognised as it will become chronic quite quickly.
Respiratory allergies cannot be cured but they can be managed and controlled if they are recognised early enough. The most common cause of COPD is dust and spores from straw and hay. Sometimes, dirty bedding can result in fungal spores being produced and this can also sometimes cause an allergic reaction in susceptible horses.
The allergy can also be triggered when certain plants or trees are flowering and producing pollen which is carried on the wind and thus inhaled by the horse. In order to tackle the problem you must first identify the cause.
If your horse begins to show signs of COPD when he is stabled after being turned out all summer, it is likely that the cause is his bedding or forage. Bed him down on dust-extracted shavings rather than straw. Rubber matting with just a sprinkling of dry shavings works very well although this can appear rather ‘cold’ compared to a lovely thick straw bed. A good alternative is shredded paper bedding, although this can be heavy and smelly to muck out and is not really suitable for use as a deep litter bed.
If your horse is on hay, swop this for dust-extracted haylage or dried, vacuum-packed grass. If you can’t get anything other than hay for forage, try soaking it for an hour or so to remove any dust and loose seeds then drain well before feeding.
Alternatively, try placing the haynet in a plastic bin, pouring a kettle of boiling water onto it then putting on the lid and allowing it to steam for half an hour. Feed forage from the floor rather than in a haynet or hay bin. This prevents the horse from inhaling seeds and dust as he’s eating.
Your vet may recommend treating the horse with corticosteroids, mucolytics or bronchodilators to help open up the airways and help the horse with his breathing.
If you stable your horse in a barn with other horses that are bedded on straw and eating dry hay, your horse will still be exposed to the dust and spores which trigger is allergy. If possible, keep him separate from others unless they are being kept in a similar environment or better still, arrange for him to live out if possible. Most horses are happy living out as long as they have a field shelter for really bad weather and a good, waterproof rug particularly if they are thin skinned and likely to feel the cold.
Some horses only display allergic symptoms when turned out during the summer months. This can make it difficult to isolate the allergen as so many plants are flowering and you may find that you have to keep your horse stabled at certain times of the year until the culprit has ceased shedding pollen into the air. Occasionally, a particular plant in your turn out area could be to blame in which case you may have to move your horse to a different field until that plant has finished flowering.
COPD can become chronic and very debilitating if left untreated for too long. If you are at all concerned about your horse, always consult your vet.
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