Recognizing and Dealing with Respiratory Distress

Coughing horse showing symptoms of respiratory distress.
Coughing horse showing symptoms of respiratory distress.

Respiratory distress in the horse is a symptom of an underlying disease or injury of the lungs. The underlying disease or injury may range from an allergic reaction to dust, or mites, or mold spores to equine asthma to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Regardless of the cause, a horse in respiratory distress requires immediate attention. When the horse is out of danger, the causes of the distress should be found, and a plan to reduce exposure to elements that may trigger respiratory distress, whatever they may be.

Recognizing respiratory distress in horses

When a horse is in a state of respiratory distress, the emergency requires rapid diagnosis of the problem, a quick assessment as to what will relieve the distress, and procedures to limit any permanent damage to the horse's respiratory system. Quite often, a veterinarian can assess the location of the problem by listening to the breathing of the horse as a stethoscope is moved over the areas where the trachea, lungs, and diaphragm are located.

Horses may resort to shallow breathing to avoid the pain of taking a deep breath due to rib fractures, pleurisy, or fluid in the chest.

Rapid or labored breathing, which is known as dyspnea, may be the result of fever, shock, dehydration, pain, or fear. The horse's nostrils may flare and the horse may have an anxious expression, with exaggerated movement of the chest wall and the flanks. Underlying causes of dyspnea include sepsis, heart failure, pneumonia, fluid in the lungs, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Noisy breathing includes abnormal breathing sounds, such as whistling, roaring, and blowing. The most common causes of whistling and roaring are vocal cord problems or displacement of the soft palate. A blowing sound while the horse is at rest is often caused by a growth or partial blockage in the nasopharynx, larynx, or windpipe.

Wheezing indicates narrowing of the breathing tubes from a spasm or constriction. Acute bronchitis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease are conditions that cause the horse to wheeze.

A horse's cough is a reflex produced by irritation of the air passages. When the cough is accompanied by fever, sneezing, noisy breathing, and discharge from the nasal cavity or eye, the horse may have a contagious respiratory disease.

Any cough that lasts more than a day or two indicates a problem in the respiratory tract. Given the variety of possible causes, consulting with a veterinarian is very important. Upper airway coughs may be caused by respiratory infections, sinusitis, pharyngitis, or guttural pouch infections. Lower airway coughs indicate acute bronchitis, pneumonia, or possibly the presence of lungworms or the larvae of ascarids. A fiberoptic bronchoscopy may be necessary to pinpoint the problem.

A horse in respiratory distress requires quick attention by a veterinarian

Any horse in a state of respiratory distress is going to be both frightened and uncomfortable. While many causes of distressed breathing are not life-threatening, some conditions, if not treated promptly, can have extremely detrimental effects on the horse's health. In any case, respiratory distress should be treated as an emergency and consultation with a veterinarian is very important.

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The following article discuss some conditions that may result in respiratory distress:

About the Author

Flossie Sellers

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As an animal lover since childhood, Flossie was delighted when Mark, the CEO and developer of EquiMed asked her to join his team of contributors.

She enrolled in My Horse University at Michigan State and completed a number of courses in everything related to horse health, nutrition, diseases and conditions, medications, hoof and dental care, barn safety, and first aid.

Staying up-to-date on the latest developments in horse care and equine health is now a habit, and she enjoys sharing a wealth of information with horse owners everywhere.