• Dr K.

Breathe easy

Subsequent to our Friday factoids we are going to attempt to follow up with some relevant and hopefully useful veterinary information. So on the theme of lungs we'd thought we'd discuss recurrent airway obstruction (RAO). Now this is basically the asthma like condition that many of our horses get on and off, you may be more familiar with the term 'heaves', or COPD. The difference being that RAO is a condition that can go into remission but COPD is more advanced and does not go into remission.

What is RAO? The disease is very similar to asthma in humans, it is simply inflammation of the airways. This inflammation causes the airways to narrow and fill with mucus. The result is a horse that will struggle with intense exercise, may have a cough and some sort of nasal discharge, and may appear to breathe more rapidly than usual when at rest.

Normal microscopic image of the lower airway.

So what causes RAO? Ultimately it is the environment that causes it. Why some horses are affected and others not is likely due to a genetic component. But what we do know is that fungal spores in the dust found in stables are one of the primary driving forces of RAO. And the primary source of those fungal spores is hay and straw.

Why am I telling you this? Well, because without environmental management RAO is very difficult to get into remission. It becomes a constant firefight between the medications against an unrelenting environmental stimulus that continues to fan the flames of inflammation.

So suppose you've had a horse diagnosed with RAO and you're already on some form of medication, what can you do to help ease the situation? Well, we know many of you lovely people board your horses so you may not be in control of all aspects of your horses environment but hopefully you'll be able to implement some of these strategies.

1: Have your horse live outdoors - the stable life is not always the best for your horses health.

2: Dust free bedding - technology has come on in leaps and bounds in recent years regarding bedding and there are numerous options available to you. This is not going to work for you however if your horse lives next door to others not on dust free bedding.

3: Sweep or blow the barn aisle when the horse is out - for the general comfort of all concerned I would recommend using a watering can to damp down the barn before sweeping/blowing.

4: Add omega-3 to their diet - research has shown supplementing horses with 1.5g-3g/day DHA for 2 months improved signs of RAO.

5: Ensure ventilation - Now in the summer things get heated and we see a lot of fans up which makes us happy but what if all they are doing is blowing dusty air into your horses face? Think about the airflow and where the clean air is. External stalls are a better option rather than internal. In winter when barns tend to be all sealed up but it still pays to keep the air moving.

6: Soak your hay!!! Okay this is a big one - Hay is one of the main contributing factors to most horses RAO and one of the factors that is most easily addressed. Hay doesn't need to be soaked for a specific time, just until all of it is wet (unless you're also dealing with laminitis but that's another blog post). If you're soaking a whole bale at a time make sure you cut the strings and leave it long enough for the water to penetrate. Your alternatives include using bagged forage or haylage (not so common here in the USA), or getting a hay steamer such as Haygain.

I am a big fan of hay steamers, not only do they make the barn smell fabulous they can almost completely reduce the amount of inflammation inducing microbes. Haygain is the main manufacturer but please DO NOT be tempted to make your own. Studies have consistently shown that home made steamers actually increase the microbial content of your hay.

Whole bale steamer.

Even if your horse doesn't have RAO these management strategies can help you maintain your horses respiratory health in top shape. If you have a horse with RAO there are various medical treatment options which I haven't gone over here and if you'd like to discuss matters then give us a call. I hope this post has given you some tools to be proactive in addressing the underlying causes of RAO and allow you and your horse the opportunity to breathe easy.

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