The Savvy Station

Coughing in Horses: Causes & Treatment

by Parelli Natural Horsemanship on Jun 26, 2024

Coughing in Horses: Causes & Treatment

Types of Coughing in Horses

A coughing horse will cause distress for horse owners. However, causes of coughs can vary significantly from environmental irritants, viruses, and more serious chronic conditions. Working with a veterinarian to diagnose the cause of your horse's persistent cough is the best plan to help your horse heal.

Coughing During Exercise

Like humans, exercise can be a trigger for a coughing fit. Horses that suffer from respiratory issues may cough after exercise. Most often, these horses suffer from equine asthma or other allergies.

Never push your horse to work through this coughing without speaking to your veterinarian. Horses with equine asthma may also experience wheezing and nasal discharge with their cough.

Coughing with Mucus

If your horse's cough is accompanied by mucus, he may suffer from an infection in his respiratory tract. The mucus can be clear, white, yellow, or green. The color of the mucus can help diagnose the type and severity of the bacterial infection. Older horses are particularly prone to respiratory infections.

Your horse may also have a fever, be lethargic, or lose his appetite with bacterial infections.

Coughing After Trailering

Trailering is a common environmental irritant. Your horse can inhale dust, mold, and other irritants during transportation. Horses with this type of cough usually experience nasal discharge, watery eyes, and irritated nostrils.

To avoid coughing because of dust and trailering, provide your horse with a clean and well-ventilated trailer. A good trailer can help avoid irritation to the respiratory system.

If trailering for long hauls, it’s important to take breaks where your horse can stand on the trailer, rest his legs, and lower his head below his withers, allowing him to blow out any inhaled irritants.  

When to worry about your horse’s cough

Coughing is a way for your horse's body to clear out irritants and mucus. However, when your horse is experiencing a persistent cough, or if it is accompanied by other symptoms, it can indicate a health issue with your horse's airways.

If your horse is experiencing other symptoms, such as mucus, nasal discharge, fever, lethargy, or loss of appetite, it is best to call your veterinarian.

Additionally, if your horse coughs frequently after exercise or exposure to other irritants, it is best to have him checked.

What Causes Coughing in Horses?

A cough can seem like such a simple symptom. Causes can be as simple as irritation by dust or a chronic respiratory issue. Horses often suffer from allergies, asthma, and environmental irritants. Overall, these are not serious issues. However, when associated with other symptoms, it can become serious quickly.

Acute issues such as virus and bacterial infections can be treated, managed, and healed within a few weeks. Meanwhile, chronic problems may have an underlying cause with long-term effects.


Equine influenza is a contagious viral disease affecting horses of all ages. Young horses and older horses may show more severe symptoms. The symptoms of influenza include:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Nasal Discharge

Influenza spreads through direct contact with an infected horse or by sharing contaminated objects like feed and water buckets or equipment.


Pneumonia is a bacterial infection. Like influenza, horses will experience fever and cough. Additionally, your horse may have difficulty breathing and show signs of lethargy. Bacterial pneumonia can be very dangerous in older horses.


Heaves is a chronic respiratory disease known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). When exposed to irritants such as dust, mold, and other triggers, a horse will suffer from coughing, wheezing, and difficulty breathing.

Inflammatory Airway Disease

Inflammatory Airway Disease (IAD) is another respiratory disease with long-term effects. When exposed to irritants, a horse will experience symptoms of coughing, nasal discharge, and an intolerance to exercise.


Rhinopneumonitis is a viral infection caused by the equine herpesvirus. Like influenza, it spreads from other infected horses. Symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Nasal Discharge
  • Miscarriage by pregnant mare


Strangles closely matches a strep infection in humans. It is a bacterial infection. Affected horses will experience fever, coughing, difficulty breathing, swollen lymph nodes, and nasal discharge.


Lungworms are a type of parasite that can cause coughing in a horse. They are a roundworm that infects the lungs. A horse must ingest larvae to contract parasites.

Congestive Heart Failure

Congestive heart failure will often cause coughing in horses. This is because of the fluid buildup inside the chest cavity around the heart. That fluid buildup puts pressure on the lungs and upper airway.

Diagnosing a Cough

There are many common causes for a cough. Your veterinarian will need to check a variety of factors to determine the cause of your horse's coughing.

First, your veterinarian will take a complete medical history. Questions will include history of coughing illnesses, exposure to affected horses, and other symptoms.

After reviewing the medical history, she will perform a physical exam. Your veterinarian will check your horse's temperature, check for inflammation, examine the nose and mouth, and finally listen to the lungs.

If the cause of the cough cannot be determined by physical exam, additional testing may be ordered. A chest x-ray will give your veterinarian a better look at your horse's respiratory system. Finally, bloodwork and pulmonary function tests can give your veterinarian a better idea of the whole picture.

Treating Coughs

It is best to avoid or plan for these irritants for coughs triggered by environmental factors like allergies, asthma, and trailering. Provide clean living and trailering environments. Your veterinarian may also suggest supplements or medications to help alleviate some of the coughing from these common causes.

For viruses, bacterial infections, or chronic causes, you must work with your veterinarian for a medical plan. Coughs caused by viruses or infections can be treated or lessened with medications. Medications like cough suppressants, expectorants, and antibiotics are all available.

Ensure your horse drinks plenty of fluids. If power is run near the stall, you can add a humidifier to help alleviate some of the coughing.

Finally, you must exercise lifestyle changes, especially for chronic coughing diseases. Avoid irritants when at all possible, including smoke, dust, and mold. Allow your horse plenty of rest as he heals from infection or virus.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.