Can Our Horses Catch Colds Like Us?

Common colds: they’re one of those illnesses we all hate. It strikes all year round, leaves us feeling drained, congested and less than enthusiastic about doing anything. Have you ever wondered if horses get colds? Surprisingly, approximately 17% of barns have had a horse in their care develop the equine equivalent of the common cold, otherwise known as infectious upper respiratory disease. So, what does this mean for the horse and his stall mates, and what can I do to prevent my horse from catching cold

When Horses Acquire Upper Respiratory Infections.

Infections can spread in a barn
In a barn, respiratory infections can spread quickly*

Have you noticed your horse has a nasal discharge? Is he running a fever? Does he seem generally “not his normal self?” If so, he may be suffering from an upper respiratory tract (URT) infection. The equine equivalent of the common cold can be caused by either a virus or bacteria and is often the result of contact with an unfamiliar horse. Most respiratory infections are transmitted through one of the following methods:

  • Sneezing and coughing – airborne secretions and germs from the affected horse will be inhaled by other nearby horses in the vicinity.
  • Vectors – Insects, flies and people can carry the infection from one horse to another. Flies represent a big problem for spreading infection.
  • Contamination – grooming kits, water buckets, feed bowls and stalls that are used by more than one horse can become a source of infection.
  • Incubation (that is, the time for infection before clinical signs appear) for respiratory infections ranges from 36 hours to 14 days, dependent on the type of infection.

What are the Signs of an Equine Cold?

In most horses, the first sign of a respiratory infection is a fever followed by a cough or nasal discharge. Some of the signs that indicate a respiratory tract infection include:

  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Cough
  • Nasal Discharge
  • Exercise intolerance
  • High fever
  • Depression
  • Anorexia
  • Dehydration


(Keep in mind that early Strangles will also show symptoms of all of the above, so, you may need to consult with your veterinarian to be sure which affliction your horse is dealing with.)

Sometimes, horses are “silent carriers” of an infection capable of spreading a disease without becoming sick themselves. For instance, approximately 80% of the horse population suffers with Equine Herpes Virus in its silent form, shedding the virus only during times of stress. This is the main route by which respiratory infections spread within a herd: the infected horses pass the disease onto vulnerable horses, such as young, old, and pregnant animals.  

What to do When Your Horse Becomes Sick with a Cold.

When humans catch cold, there is simply no magic cure to help us feel better! Most of us will rest up at home under a comforter, consuming plenty of fluids to maintain proper hydration levels. In fact, this is also a recommended treatment for horses experiencing cold like symptoms. The current school of thought is that for every day of fever, the horse should be given a week of rest, for at least 2-3 weeks after the infection has cleared. You can encourage the horse to drink more fluids by providing a salt lick or adding electrolytes to the horse’s feed, and providing high quality nutrition alongside a big, clean bed in the stall.

It is important to remember that the respiratory tract lining takes around 21 days to regenerate. For this reason, horses with viral infections may be susceptible to complications such as pneumonia for three weeks following the first signs of infection. Insufficient rest following viral infections may also be a predisposing factor for developing persistent airway inflammation and could play a role in inflammatory airway disease development. 

Depending on the type of infection, your veterinarian may prescribe medication to reduce the fever. If a bacterial infection is indicated, antibiotics may be administered to as a preventative measure.

Preventing Colds

Unfortunately, if you regularly travel to shows, there is always a risk that your horse will come into contact with bacteria and viruses which can lead to respiratory tract infections. There are a few preventative measures you can put in place to help stop the spread of infection.

  • Ensure your horse is up to date with vaccinations. Speak to your veterinarian about the most appropriate vaccination protocol for where your geographical area and keep abreast of any news of equine infection risks.
  • Quarantine horses, new to the barn, for 3 weeks before they allowing them to come into contact with existing residents
  • Keep equipment for each horse separate from others: ensure food and water bowls are effectively disinfected and do not share grooming kits and tack.
  • Clean the stall daily, do not allow ammonia to accumulate in the stall as this can cause inflammation in the respiratory tract. Spalding Bye Bye Odor can help reduce ammonia by eliminating the cause of the toxic fumes.
  • Keep the barn free from flies, as they are one of the main culprits in the spread of equine infection. Use Spalding Fly Predators early in the season prior to the emergence of adult flies to get rid of pest flies, and use Fly traps in the stall during high season to catch any flies that may have migrated from a neighbour’s property onto yours.

Should you think that your horse has a fever and signs of a respiratory infection, immediately isolate him and call your veterinarian. By initiating treatment early and with proper management techniques in place at your barn, you stand a better chance of preventing the infection from spreading.