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


Breathing Noise at Rest


Breathing noise at rest is usually associated with something causing an upper respiratory tract respiratory airway obstruction. This could result from infection, guttural pouch problems, mechanical problems of the upper airway (displaced soft palate or laryngeal paralysis), or anything else affecting the upper airway. Recently sedated horses often make snoring sounds.

Breathing accompanied by audible sounds usually indicates some obstruction to air flow in the upper airway (versus the lungs). The exception to this is RAO or Heaves in which whistling sounds can sometimes be heard without a stethoscope. These upper respiratory sounds can be described as rattling, whistling, or wheezing.

A rattling sound suggests that there is something interfering with air flow in the upper airway, usually mucus. Snoring sounds usually indicate obstruction of the nasal passages versus the throat. Wheezing indicates air flow through an abnormally narrow passage.

  • Code Red

    Call Your Vet Immediately, Even Outside Business Hours
    • If this problem seems severe and has come on suddenly.
    • If the horse seems to be in distress.
    • If you think the horse is having difficulty breathing.
    • If the results of the Whole Horse Exam (WHE) in the resting horse indicate fever (Temp >101F/38.3C) or heart rate greater than 48 BPM.
  • Code Orange

    Call Your Vet at Their First Available Office Hours
    • If you consider this a chronic and relatively mild problem that is not changing rapidly.
    • If the results of the Whole Horse Exam (WHE) suggest the horse is otherwise normal.
You also might be observing
Very Common
Less Common
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your role


What To Do

Assess your horse's general health using the Whole Horse Exam (WHE) and contact your vet with your findings and concerns. If your horse also has a fever, consider placing them in quarantine to reduce exposure to other horses until your vet makes a diagnosis. Since this observation can be associated with infectious disease, consider wearing gloves when handling the horse and instituting isolation measures until more is known.

What Not To Do

Do not cause undue to a stress a horse that may be having trouble breathing. It can worsen the problem.

your vet's role

Through history and physical exam, your vet usually can determine whether the problem is coming from upper or lower respiratory tract. Other diagnostics might narrow the nature of the disease process.
Questions Your Vet Might Ask:
  • Would you say this came on suddenly or gradually?
  • Have you noticed a cough?
  • When did you last think your horse seemed normal?
  • When did you first notice this?
  • Has your horse been in contact with other horses recently?
  • What is the horse's age, sex, breed and history?
  • How is your horse's attitude and appetite?
  • Have you given the horse any medication recently?
  • Do you notice swelling around the jaw or throat?
  • Was the horse recently anesthetized?
  • Is there nasal discharge?
  • What are the results of the Whole Horse Exam (WHE)?
  • Has the horse's feeding or management changed in the last week?
  • What is the horse's rectal temperature?
  • What is the horse's vaccination status?

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
more diagnoses

Author: Doug Thal DVM Dipl. ABVP