Protecting your Horse from Respiratory Disease

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Protecting your Horse from Respiratory Disease

Avoiding nose-to-nose contact with horses from other farms can help prevent the spread of infectious respiratory diseases like equine herpesvirus and equine influenza.

Photo: Vince Cook Photography

Although respiratory diseases are rarely fatal, they are costly for the performance horse. A general rule of thumb is one week off for every day the horse is running a fever—often costing you weeks of training and showing time. Here are some quick tips to help keep respiratory disease out of your barn. 

1. Biosecurity—Show grounds and racetracks can be an ideal environment for viruses and bacteria due to the high volume of horses that move in and out of them. You can help protect your horse by taking a few simple measures to help minimize his contact with these viruses and bacteria:

  • Disinfect your stall prior to using it. Mild antibacterial soap/disinfectants and warm water will kill most harmful viruses and bacteria that can affect your horse. Be sure to clean the walls, doors, bars, and floors—anywhere his nose and mouth can touch.
  • Avoid nose-to-nose contact with other horses. One of the ways respiratory diseases, such as equine influenza virus and equine herpesvirus, are transmitted is from nose-to-nose contact.
  • Do not share equipment with other horses without properly disinfecting. This includes bits, brushes, buckets, hoses, etc.

2. Vaccinate regularly—Keep your performance horse, and any horses he comes in contact with, on a regular vaccination schedule.

  • Have your horse properly vaccinated by a veterinarian at least two weeks prior to the start of your show season.
  • Talk with your veterinarian about an appropriate vaccination booster schedule. Most performance horses will need to be vaccinated for respiratory diseases such as equine influenza and equine herpesvirus at least bi-annually.

3. Adequate ventilation—It is important to provide adequate ventilation during transport, as well as at home. Ammonia (from urine) and dust can irritate the horse’s respiratory system, making them more susceptible to disease. Keep your barn and arena well-ventilated with clean, natural air, and do your best to remove wet bedding and dust daily. When you are traveling, the same principles apply—dust and ammonia in the trailer can irritate your horse’s trachea, bronchi, and lungs and create what some call “shipping fever.” To help avoid this, consider letting your horse out of the trailer in a safe, secure location to breathe fresh air and move naturally every three to five hours during a long trip.

4. Use medications under veterinary supervision—If you suspect your horse may have contracted or been exposed to a respiratory disease, contact your veterinarian immediately. Respiratory diseases are often less severe if caught early and treated appropriately.

5. Allow your horse to rest as much as possible—Just like humans, horses’ immune systems tend to weaken when they are overworked and overstressed. A couple days of turnout and rest after a show can be one of the best preventative measures.

For more educational information and record-keeping tools that can keep your performance horse on track, talk with your veterinarian about the Merck Animal Health’s Horse Care for Life program.

About the Author

Earl Gaughan, DVM, Dipl. ACVS

Earl Gaughan, DVM, Dipl. ACVS, is an equine technical services veterinarian with Merck Animal Health. He graduated from the University of Georgia’s College of Veterinary Medicine and completed a residency in large animal surgery at Cornell University. Gaughan is a board-certified surgeon and has been in private equine practice in Maryland and Colorado. Additionally, he’s served as professor of equine surgery at Kansas State University, Auburn University, and the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine. He has been active in the leadership of the North American Veterinary Conference and the American College of Veterinary Surgeons. Gaughan is an equine technical services veterinarian for Merck Animal Health.

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