Coping with Recurrent Airway Obstruction


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Coping with Recurrent Airway Obstruction

Morgan Murphy

Coping with Recurrent Airway Obstruction

Respiratory problems are extremely common in both leisure and performance horses and persistent symptoms of respiratory illness is one of the leading complaints behind veterinary consultations in the US.

Recurrent Airway Obstruction (otherwise known as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder (COPD)) is an equine respiratory condition which causes the narrowing of the horse’s airways, making it harder for him to breathe. It is similar to the human condition of asthma in its presentation and, once diagnosed, it often becomes a chronic condition. Although it is difficult to remove all of the triggers of Recurrent Airway Obstruction (RAO), there are steps you can take to alleviate your horse’s condition and these suggestions are explored below.

The respiratory system of a horse is very delicate*

What is RAO?

Recurrent Airway Obstruction is a lower-airway disease characterised by repeated episodes of labored breathing, coughing and nasal discharge.  The condition is triggered by exposure to dust, hay, straw, bedding, ammonia or undetermined allergens.  A veterinary examination will reveal a noticeable inflammation of the airway and blood tests, if obtained, often expose a high neutrophil (a type of white blood cell) count.

What are the symptoms of RAO?

Diagnosis of RAO is based upon a history of recurrent episodes of a group of symptoms and it may be necessary to undergo additional tests to rule out other conditions. RAO is predominantly found in horses that spend a significant time in the stable and are fed hay on a regular basis. Whilst not limited to certain breeds or ages, it is most commonly seen in horses age 7 and above.

Signs that a horse is suffering from RAO include:

  • coughing
  • nasal discharge, including thick mucous
  • labored breathing at rest, with abdominal effort
  • decrease in performance
  • struggling to breath/wheezing during exercise
  • raised respiratory rate at rest
  • general depression and lethargy

The veterinarian will normally take a full blood count highlighting inflammatory markers. Further tests, such as blood gas measurements, endoscopy or chest x-rays, may also be obtained.

How do I manage RAO in my horse?

The veterinarian may initially prescribe bronchodilators, which relax the lung muscles and open the airways, and are normally given orally via feed.   Bronchodilators are usually recommended for only a short time, as they are costly and if used for a prolonged period their efficacy can diminish.

The most important factor in managing RAO is reducing the horse’s exposure to hay, straw and their associated dust.  Providing dust-free bedding such as treated wood shavings, paper or wood pellets will ensure the horse is not exposed to any unnecessary dust spores. If, for any reason, straw or wood shavings must be used, make sure that these are dust-extracted varieties.

If the horse must remain stalled for certain periods of time it is vital to keep the stall as clean as possible.  Leftover food should be removed and wet bedding must be removed daily to minimise exposure to ammonia. Be selective when investing in stable cleaning solutions and consider using a topical treatment such as Spalding Labs’ “Bye Bye Odor” to limit the ammonia fumes from soiled bedding.  Remember to consider the overall environment: sufficient ventilation in a barn will ensure there is no stagnation of dust and spores. Ultimately, the most effective way to help clear your horse’s airways naturally is to provide him with as much turnout as physically possible. If your horse is able and happy to live out 24/7 then this should be lifestyle change should be given serious consideration.

The RAO-affected horse must never be fed unsoaked hay but in milder cases it may be acceptable to feed soaked hay.  However, in many cases even soaked hay is not sufficient to minimise the dust spores to a safe level. Instead, replace hay with a low-dust alternative such as haylage or a forage replacement to decrease significantly the number of irritants in the horse’s surroundings.

Although you cannot prevent or “cure” RAO, with careful management and a clean stall you can minimize your horse’s distress and combat the regularity of his episodes.

*Image courtesy of Bigstock Images

  • Fantastic read Morgan - so informative, I didn't know any of this!