Owners Reluctant to Change Asthmatic Horses’ Environments

Veterinarians don’t treat equine asthma with medications alone. They also recommend lifestyle changes for the horse—from soaked hay and low-dust bedding to ventilated barns and lengthy turnout. Unless treatment plans include these environmental changes, horses will continue to experience the coughing, nasal discharge, and poor performance related to severe equine asthma (SEA). And that’s exactly what’s happening as large percentages of owners neglect to implement those changes, according to British researchers.

More than half the owners of SEA-affected horses in a recent selective study showed poor compliance with veterinary recommendations for managing the horse’s environment, said veterinarian Joana Simões, who is a doctoral student in the faculty of veterinary medicine at the University of Lisbon in Portugal.

Only 15% showed good compliance, and less than 8% followed all recommendations for environmental changes to improve their horses’ health, Simões said.

Although the study group was relatively small—only 39 horses—it still raised concerns about suboptimal treatment for asthmatic horses, said Simões. This could be due to poor communication between veterinarians and owners, she said.

“We as veterinarians have to ensure that the owners understand the information and why it is fundamental for them to adhere to the treatment or, in this case, the environmental recommendations,” said Simões. This might include creative solutions such as showing videos or just spending an extra 15 minutes with the client, she added.

Asthmatic Horses Need Environmental Changes

​Horses with severe equine asthma “go through periods of disease exacerbation and remission, depending on their exposure to respirable dust particles,” said Simões. When airway inflammation from asthma goes on for prolonged periods, horses can experience “irreversible airway remodeling” that affects respiratory function.

“There is no cure for severe equine asthma, and the available pharmacological treatment only helps to control airway inflammation,” Simões said. “If the horse remains exposed the high concentrations of respirable dust particles, even with pharmacological treatment, the airway inflammation will persist. Therefore, it is fundamental for asthmatic horses to be exposed to environments with low respirable dust concentrations, and this will not be possible without long-term commitment and adherence to environmental management recommendations.”

Owner Compliance, One Year After SEA Diagnosis

In their study, Simões and her fellow researchers evaluated how owners adhered to their veterinarians’ recommended management changes one year after their horses had been diagnosed with SEA. The protocols included soaking hay for 20 to 30 minutes, switching to low-dust bedding (dust-free shavings, cardboard, etc.), performing grooming and stall cleaning while the horse is outdoors, providing good ventilation in barns, giving the horse extended turnout of at least 12 hours a day, and, ideally, putting the horse entirely at pasture.

Only three of the 39 owners implemented all six of these recommendations, said Simões. An additional three had implemented at least five of the recommendations. Twenty owners (51.4%) had only implemented up to two recommendations. And four of them hadn’t implemented any.

The Challenge of Change

“My colleagues and I were very surprised, as we had expected compliance to be much higher,” she said. “We began this study feeling quite optimistic believing that although a perfect compliance would probably be an unrealistic achievement, owners would try to adhere to most of the environmental recommendations. Personally, I was quite depressed when I looked at the final results, since it revealed a communication gap. Maybe the importance of the transmitted information was not fully grasped by the horse owners.”

Practicality and socioeconomic factors might also have played a role, she said. While most owners tended to apply the “easy fix” of changing bedding, it was much less common to implement lengthy turnout or hay soaking—which might have infringed on the owners’ personal time, as these require longer time commitments. Changing to well-ventilated stables or to management on pasture was even rarer, perhaps due to the inconvenience, she added.

“But in my opinion lack of compliance is mostly related to how modern society approaches disease in general,” said Simões. “We want a quick solution, a pill or a drug that will make the disease disappear. Unfortunately, at the present time, there is no cure for severe equine asthma, and the only solution is ensuring the horse is permanently kept in a dust-free environment. This requires a long-term commitment with modifications of daily routines, and I believe this is a big challenge to most horse owners.”