Coughing horses: Equine asthma could be to blame

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Dr Surita du Preez: “Horses have a poorly developed cough reflex and should not cough at all. If they cough it usually signifies a problem, unlike in people who have a very well developed cough reflex and may cough because of a simple throat tickle.” Photo: University of Adelaide

A study into the frequency of equine asthma and risk factors for its presence in Australian horses is being conducted by University of Adelaide researchers.

The study team also wants to find out whether the recent bushfires have increased respiratory distress.

“We know from studies of racehorses overseas that up to 57-80% of horses have a mild to moderate form of asthma and that as many as 14-20% of horses may have a severe form of asthma but we don’t currently have much information about prevalence in Australia,” says Dr Surita du Preez, specialist veterinarian in equine internal medicine at the University’s Equine Health and Performance Centre.

“If we can determine the prevalence of asthma in our horses here, and identify Australian-specific risk factors for development of equine asthma, we may be able to prevent disease development, and better manage horses that are already affected.”

Asthma is one of the main causes of poor performance in horses, making them unwilling to go forward in race, sport or pleasure riding situations.

Dr du Preez and honours student Jewel Azaria Tan will base their findings on the results of a survey of horse owners in recent months. It included questions about their horses’ health, use, and management, including feeding and housing practices. Participants were also asked about the bushfires.

Based on the questionnaire answers, the researchers intend to use a scoring system to establish the likelihood of asthma.

“The mild to moderate form of asthma can affect horses of all ages and disciplines, not just racehorses,” Dr du Preez says. “It can result in intermittent coughing or nasal discharge or both.

“Horses have a poorly developed cough reflex and should not cough at all. If they cough it usually signifies a problem, unlike in people who have a very well developed cough reflex and may cough because of a simple throat tickle.

“The severe form of asthma affects middle-aged to older horses and is a life-long, progressive disease which if left unmanaged can result in severe airway remodelling and obstruction to airflow, resulting in breathing difficulties.”

Dr du Preez says it is unclear whether the bushfires have worsened asthma in horses.

“We hope through this survey to establish some baseline information about the numbers of horses affected by bushfires and whether the owners noticed an increase in respiratory signs.”

Dr du Preez is also evaluating the traditional methods for diagnosing asthma in horses to determine what the gold standard of diagnosis should be.

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