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  • Q:

    My 12-year-old gelding has a chronic cough. The vet thought the hay was dusty so advised me to water it down. We have done that and he still coughs. We have four other horses in the barn, and none of them cough. He rarely coughs when he is in his pasture. We thought about removing the hay and feeding him hay cubes instead. What else can we do?

  • A:

    As you alluded to in your question, conscientious management for horses with respiratory conditions is important. It may be helpful to have another vet investigate further the cause of your gelding’s persistent cough, just to be sure there is nothing else brewing in his respiratory system.

    In the meantime, I suggest you manage him like a horse with chronic respiratory compromise, and this would entail keeping him outdoors as much as possible. This management change will coincide nicely with your description of his coughing pattern, in that he rarely, if ever, coughs while at pasture.

    If all-day turnout is not an option, it is wise to implement practices that reduce dust in his environment. One thing that is often overlooked is the type of stall bedding used. Seek out a low-dust material, such as wood byproducts, shredded newspaper, or chopped cardboard. Do not use straw. Remove the horse from the barn during stall cleaning, as this activity stirs up airborne particles and will aggravate respiratory conditions. Any hay stored overhead should be moved far away from his stall. Ventilation should be enhanced through the use of windows. If it’s possible for him to hang his head out of the stall, either over a Dutch door or stall guard, this too might be beneficial.

    Feeding hay that has been soaked for 15-30 minutes is one method to reduce the dust in hay. Hay can also be steamed with a commercial steamer. Hay should be fed from the ground. In addition to being the most natural way for horses to eat, there’s less chance that he will inhale bothersome particulates, and his airways will remain clearer in a head-down position.

    In addition to managing breathing environment and forage, supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids, particularly docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), has been shown to improve airway function in horses. Long-chain omega-3s, like DHA and EPA, from a marine-derived source are more efficient as precursors to local hormones than short-chain omega-3s, such as those found in flax. KER offers a high-quality deodorized fish oil rich in DHA and EPA called EO•3. Two ounces of EO-3 a day would offer the anti-inflammatory benefits to potentially reduce respiratory problems and allergic reactivity.

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