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How to recognise Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder (COPD)

By Jessica Surrey Dane
How to recognise Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder (COPD)

Coughing, wheezing and nasal discharge are all indicators of a respiratory problem. Often these disappear quickly of their own accord or are easily treated by a vet, but they are also symptoms of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder (COPD), a common respiratory ailment.

Spotting it early can be a great benefit in the management of this incurable disease so it’s important to understand why it occurs and, if it does, what needs to be done to keep on top of it.

What COPD is and how it’s caused
COPD is an allergy to dust spores and also goes by some other names including heaves, broken wind and equine asthma. It occurs when a horse’s lungs react to dust particles inside them, inflaming and producing excess mucus, causing the airways to constrict.

COPD can develop at any age and most commonly arises in stable-kept horses due to the allergens in bedding and forage. It ranges in severity from horse to horse, some maintaining a working life with it, others being forced into retirement.

What to look out for
A horse suffering from COPD will struggle to breathe, particularly outwards, with the abdominal muscles working far harder than normal as it fights to draw air in and out of its lungs. It’s likely to sound more like wheezing. Sufferers also cough and encounter nasal discharge.

Exercise will be laboured, but this depends on how badly the horse suffers. However, in the majority of cases the respiratory rate increases even at rest as the horse tries to fill its lungs with as much oxygen as possible to be transported to the muscles via the bloodstream. This lack of oxygen reaching the working muscles is why exercise is a struggle for sufferers.

If a horse shows symptoms a vet should be called quickly because damage that is done to the lungs is more or less permanent. It’s therefore vital to get a handle on the problem as swiftly as possible.

Management
Due to the incurability of COPD, owners and carers of affected horses must do everything they can to prevent exposure to allergens where possible. Ideally, as little time should be spent in the stable as possible, but, where a sufferer must live in, use dust-free bedding, such as paper, cardboard or hemp – Aubiose is a popular alternative. It’s also advisable to lay just a small bed and cover the rest of the stable floor in rubber matting.

Dust particles in hay also cause the disease to flare up. To avoid this, it can be soaked for a minimum of 20 minutes or a more expensive, but reliably dust-free (soaking is not guaranteed to remove all allergens), option is to feed haylage. Horsehage offers a range of dust-extracted products, including haylage that’s safe to feed to laminitic horses.

The vet may prescribe drugs to ease coughing and anti-inflammatories to keep the flare-ups as minor as possible. In some cases an Aeromask is recommended to enable the horse to breathe freely and easily as it inhales medication. While these options may provide significant relief for sufferers, it’s important to remember that a lifestyle change for the horse is a preferable form of management.

Photo by Jessica Surrey Dane

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