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As autumn days give way to long winter nights, the familiar sounds of coughs begin to echo around the barn. The decreased amount of ultraviolet light associated with shorter days allows viruses to survive better. Close up the barn to keep out the cold, and you’ve created the recipe for cold and flu season.

The 2 most common causes of respiratory infections in horses are rhinopneumonitis and influenza. More commonly known as colds or flu, these viruses are spread from one horse to another by nasal discharges and coughing. Luckily, these viruses are different from the cold and flu viruses that affect humans, so people are not at risk of being infected. Symptoms of this type of respiratory infection include cough, thick nasal discharge, fever, lack of appetite, and lethargy. These symptoms last 1-2 weeks, and don’t usually require veterinary care unless the horse has a high fever, is not eating, or the symptoms persist.

So how do we prevent these infections from occurring? The key to preventing infection is to minimize the chance of these viruses getting established in your horse’s respiratory tract. The most effective way to do this is to prevent your horse from coming in contact with an infected horse. If your horse lives in a boarding or training barn or travels at all, this is easier said then done. In these situations, you can’t control the chance of an infected horse coming into the barn any more than you can control the sick kid coming to your child’s kindergarten. So the next best thing is to make sure that your horse is vaccinated in the fall for influenza and rhinopneumonitis. These vaccines only produce a short lasting immunity, so you may want to ask your veterinarian about vaccinating every 3 months if your horse is in high-risk environment. Other things that you can do to minimize exposure to infection are bringing your own water buckets when your horse travels and avoid areas where other horses congregate.

Finally, what do you do when your horse comes down with a cold? The key to getting your horse through this quickly and easily is good nursing care. Instead of giving your horse chicken soup, you want to try and decrease the amount of irritation to the respiratory system. One way to do this is to soak your horse’s hay before feeding it. This prevents your horse from breathing in the microscopic amounts of dust that are in even the best hay. Allowing your horse to be outdoors as much as possible also decreases the amount of dust and irritants that he or she inhales. The last key to helping your horse through a cold is to reduce their exercise. Research has shown that working a horse during a respiratory infection increases the severity of the cough, nasal discharge, and lethargy.

Respiratory infections are never any fun in either humans or horses. By taking some precautions and following a few tips you and your horse can make it through cold and flu season without any trouble. But remember that if the symptoms aren’t improving after a few days or your horse does not want to eat, call your veterinarian immediately.


Dr. John Marion

Castlewood Canyon Equine - Quality Horse veterinarian Services for Franktown CO, Elizabeth, Parker and the surrounding areas.

1115 Castlewood Canyon Road
Franktown, CO 80116
(303) 660-1492

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