XL Equine Vet Imogen Burrows tells us about the time she taught recently qualified vets all about equine asthma.

Imogen Burrows BVetMed CertAVP(EM) MRCVS RCVS Advanced Veterinary Practitioner in Equine Medicine

Many owners have a good idea of the day-to-day workings in the life of a vet – but being part of an XLVets practice means there are a few other opportunities that come our way. One of the XLVets initiatives I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved with, is teaching on the Equine Graduate Development Programme. This course provides high quality, practical, small group teaching in four two-day modules, and covers all aspects of equine and veterinary practice to facilitate growth in both knowledge and confidence in recently qualified vets.

Recently, I was involved in teaching on the second of the modules, which covered the management of common emergencies in equine practice.

Teaching is a great way to develop my own knowledge and communication skills – both of which a critical in veterinary practice. Additionally, it is incredibly rewarding to witness confidence growing in front of you – knowing that many horses and their owners will benefit in the long run.

I had many topics to address over the two days – however, one of these we are seeing commonly in practice at the moment is acute respiratory distress.

Most owners are familiar with the term COPD, and some with the newer term RAO (recurrent airway obstruction); however relatively few are aware there is now another shift in terminology to ‘equine asthma’. This term has superseded the previous acronyms as the underlying mechanisms behind this disease are very similar to the human asthma equivalent – far more so than the human equivalent of COPD.

Equine asthma is the commonest cause of chronic coughing in horses in temperate climates, such as the UK, although summer cases are more likely to exhibit difficulty breathing rather than a cough – particularly in an acute flare up of the condition. However, this time of year, particularly in the face of cold temperature snaps, respiratory distress in the form of sudden onset coughing and rapid breathing with increased abdominal effort – seen as a heave line, is not uncommon.

While veterinary attention is certainly required to help horses in both the acute and chronic stages of equine asthma, it is critical for owners to be aware of how much of a role the horse’s environment plays in this disease. In fact, without excellent owner compliance and understanding of environmental management, the benefit we are able to provide as vets with medication will be limited.

Asthma is triggered by environmental allergens found in inhaled organic dusts such as spores, moulds and ammonia. These allergens stimulate an already hyper-responsive airway to constrict, form excessive quantities of mucus and inflame the airway lining, reducing airflow to the lungs and increasing the difficulty of breathing.

Basically, in cases of equine asthma, cleanliness is next to godliness. If you’re involved with managing a horse or pony with equine asthma, here are a few tips for you to make sure you keep the risks of flare ups to a minimum.

• Do some house work! Yup – we need to dust and clean the stable too. Have a look up and around your horse’s stable – if there are cobwebs, theres dust. Then this is what your horse’s lungs are exposed to as well, which won’t help. Get the feather duster and vacuum cleaner out and set to with gusto! If you wouldn’t like your bedroom to look like this, then it’s not clean enough for your horse.

• Use bedding that has minimal dust and keep the bed as clean as possible – no deep littering! There are so many options for bedding materials available now, but critically try and make sure your horse gets as as much turnout as possible.

Feeding off the floor can be beneficial to your horse

• Similarly consider the feed stuff you are giving. Dust is not good for these horses, but nor are fungal spores or moulds. My preference is to steam hay or consider haylage in leaner horses – or mix hay with straw. It’s also better to feed from the floor, in the head down position to allow the respiratory secretions to drain.

• Finally be aware that your horse’s neighbours environment also matters to susceptible horses. Allergens become airborne, so although your horse’s direct environment is the most important, if he/she is in a barn, what else is in the barn matters too. Keep at risk horses near the door, in a well ventilated (front and back) stable, well away from muck heaps or the hay/straw stores.

For specific advice, you’re best to ring your own vet, as they have the added advantage of knowing your horse’s history, any special requirements and the environment in which he/she lives.