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Equine Health Resource

Difficulty Breathing, Struggles for Breath

Code Red - Call Your Vet Immediately, Even Outside Business Hours

Code Red - Call Your Vet Immediately, Even Outside Business Hours

    The act of taking a breath requires contraction of the diaphragm and expansion of the chest. This causes negative pressure within the chest, which pulls air through the nostrils, nasal passages, nasopharynx, larynx, trachea, bronchi, small airways and expands the lung tissue itself. Conditions that cause obvious difficulty breathing are usually a result of a problem somewhere within the respiratory tract.

    A horse that is having difficulty breathing may make respiratory noise or appear to “work hard” to get a breath. You may notice that the horse’s sides seem to pull or draw hard in order to draw air in or push it out. They may have an anxious expression. Their nostrils may flare. The respiratory rate will often be higher than normal. There may be sounds either on the inhalation or exhalation.


    If this sign seem severe or the horse is in any distress, contact your vet immediately. Keep in mind that horses tend to panic when they are in respiratory distress, causing more dysfunction of the airway and worsening the problem. For this reason, do not stress the horse, keep them calm until your vet arrives.

    Take a moment to observe your horse, looking for other signs of illness or disease. Assess the horse’s general health using the Whole Horse Exam (WHE), paying particular attention to rectal temperature, gum color, heart rate and respiratory rate. Share your findings with your vet.

    If the signs are severe and you have access to medications (steroids) talk to your vet about whether you might treat the horse before they arrive.


    Your vet may give emergency medications to provide some temporary relief, as they seek to determine what conditions are causing the signs. Vets seek to differentiate upper airway (trachea, nasal passages) from lower airway (lungs) obstruction.

    Identify or Rule-Out Possible CausesDIAGNOSES

    Recurrent Airway Obstruction, RAO
    Allergy or Hypersensitivity, Generally
    Pneumonia, Pleuropneumonia & Pleuritis, Generally
    Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome, ARDS
    Foal Pneumonia, Rhodococcus equi
    Poisonous Snake Bite, Rattlesnake or Pit Viper
    Organosphosphate Toxicity
    Summer Pasture-Associated Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, SPAOPD
    Pharyngeal Sub-Epiglottic Cyst
    Dorsal Displacement of Soft Palate, DDSP
    Epiglottic Entrapment in Aryepiglottic Fold
    Smoke Inhalation, Pneumonitis
    Nitrate Toxicity From Plants or Fertilizer
    Vaccination Reaction
    Pleural Effusion
    Red Maple Leaf Toxicosis
    Arytenoid Chondritis & Epiglottiditis
    Pneumothorax & Pneumomediastinum
    Dorsal Pharyngeal Lymphoid Hyperplasia, DPLH
    Purpura Hemorrhagica, PH
    African Horse Sickness, AHS
    Neoplasia, Tumor or Cancer, Sinus or Nasal Passage
    Pleural Abscesses
    Moldy Corn Toxicity
    Respiratory Conditions, Generally
    Guttural Pouch Mycosis
    Guttural Pouch Tympany
    Hyperkalemic Periodic Paralysis, HYPP
    Poisoning by Cardiotoxic Plants, Generally
    Equine Granulocytic Ehrlichiosis, EGE
    Lyme Disease, Borreliosis
    Fracture of Base of Skull & Brain Case
    Foal or Newborn, Combined Immunodeficiency, CID
    Pharyngeal Dysfunction
    Seasonal Pasture Myopathy
    Equine Piroplasmosis, EP
    Japanese Encephalitis
    Hendra Virus, HeV
    Blue Green Algae Toxicity
    Bastard Strangles
    Plants Causing Salivation & Mouth Irritation
    Burn, Thermal or Fire
    Neurotoxic Snakebite, Coral Snake, Cobra
    Mycotoxin Toxicity, Generally
    Selenium Toxicity
    Clotting Factor Deficiency, Coagulation Problem
    Locoweed Toxicity
    Johnson or Sudan Grass Toxicity
    Diaphragmatic Hernia, Ruptured Diaphragm
    Phenothiazine Toxicity
    Lupine Toxicity
    Castorbean or Ricin Toxicity
    Oleander Toxicity
    Marijuana Toxicity
    Larkspur, Monkshood Toxicity

    POSSIBLE TREATMENTS or TherapiesTo Lessen or Resolve the Sign

    Author: Doug Thal DVM Dipl. ABVP


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