What you see. The starting point for addressing any equine health related issue is your observation.


Difficulty Breathing, Struggles for Breath


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, but severe abdominal distention (bloat) from intestinal obstruction can make it very difficult for horses to breathe.

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.

  • Code Red

    Call Your Vet Immediately, Even Outside Business Hours
You also might be observing
Very Common
Less Common
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your role


What To Do

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.

What Not To Do

Do not take a "wait and see" approach. Respiratory distress can worsen rapidly, causing death.

your vet's role

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.
Questions Your Vet Might Ask:
  • Have you noticed a similar episode in the past?
  • What is the horse's age, sex, breed and history?
  • Do you notice a cough?
  • Have you noticed increased dust or mold in the horse's hay recently?
  • Describe the type and quality of the hay?
  • Has the hay changed recently?
  • Are other horses exhibiting similar signs?
  • Do you notice swelling on either side of the horse's neck?
  • Are any of the other horses in the group coughing?
  • What are the results of the Whole Horse Exam (WHE)?

Diagnoses Your Vet May Consider

The cause of the problem. These are conditions or ailments that are the cause of the observations you make.

Very Common
Less Common
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Author: Doug Thal DVM Dipl. ABVP