A single cough from your horse isn’t cause for concern—or is it?

Respiratory infection
Even if it sounds like a routine hack, take a moment to check your horse for nasal discharge that could indicate a respiratory infection. If you’d like to be extra cautious, take the horse’s temperature: Generally, a temperature of 98 to 100 is normal in horses. If you discover potential signs of illness, isolate the horse and check others in the barn—the sooner you can identify and address an outbreak of a respiratory virus, the better.

In the absence of signs of respiratory illness, a horse’s cough could signal equine asthma, commonly known as heaves. 

Equine asthma
In the absence of signs of respiratory illness, a cough could signal equine asthma (commonly known as heaves), chronic small airway inflammation typically triggered by environmental conditions. Some horses with mild heaves may not cough or show other outward signs of trouble when at rest or in low- level work, but it’s always worth ruling out, particularly if the horse lives indoors or is ridden in dusty conditions.

Poor air quality
Managing asthma starts with the horse’s environment. Assess the air quality in the barn: Do you smell any ammonia? Can you see dust particles suspended in rays of sunlight? Then, do what you can to improve indoor ventilation and turn your horse out as much as possible. The few horses whose asthma is triggered by outdoor conditions (a condition known as pasture-associated heaves) will improve if kept indoors when exposure to allergens is likely. Some horses may need further interventions, such as medications or the dampening of hay and other feed to reduce dust.

Also keep in mind that coughs can linger for weeks after a respiratory infection. It’s possible that the occasional cough is a sign of residual inflammation, and you are working a recovering horse too hard. Scale back on your demands to give his lungs time to fully heal.

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