Winter Respiratory Care

Clear or whitish nasal discharge, sometimes foamy.  Dry cough when starting exercise or eating.  When there is no fever to indicate infection, these are signs of IAD – inflammatory airway disease – and are very common in stabled horses.  A more severe condition is RAO, recurrent airway obstruction, characterized by the same symptoms plus bronchospasm, wheezing and labored breathing.  RAO is also typically more a problem of stabled horses.

For many horses, winter means more time spent in the barn with more exposure to respiratory irritants. The major offenders are ammonia from urine breakdown, dust and molds in hay or bedding and airborne bacterial products.  These are always present in the barn but their concentration in the air jumps dramatically when barns are tightly sealed up against the cold.


      If you have window condensation in the barn there’s a major ventilation problem.

A  critical first step in reducing airway irritation is to guarantee good air circulation through the barn.  High moisture levels indicated by window condensation suspend the irritating substances and reduced air turnover allows their concentration to increase.  Other measures to take, especially if you have symptomatic horses, include:

  • Pick out stall wet spots frequently and consider stall deodorizers (even kitty litter works) for ammonia control
  • Store hay in a separate building
  • Use shavings rather than straw
  • Wet hay and bagged feeds before feeding
  • Turn the horse out as much as possible

Several supplement ingredients can assist with maintenance of normal lung function in the face of these temporary challenges.  Spirulina assists in the maintenance of a normal, balanced immune response and stabilization of histamine releasing cells.  MSM supports a controlled inflammatory response.  Research has documented low levels of antioxidant vitamin C in IAD/RAO lung fluid and supplementation may help restore this.  Jiaogulan (Gynostemma platensis) is a Chinese adaptogenic herb which supports normal airway dilation for good air flow.

Oral administration of aromatic herbs and essential oils in a soothing base of Aloe vera, apple cider vinegar and glycerin works like cough drops to temporarily soothe irritated throats and airways.

IAD and RAO are common equine respiratory conditions caused by environmental irritants.  Fortunately, there are many things you can do to reduce exposure to those irritants and supplements which help the body maintain normal lung function.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD

About Dr. Kellon

Graduate of University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School. Owner of Equine Nutritional Solutions,, industry and private nutritional consultations, online nutritional courses. Staff Veterinary Expert at Uckele Health and Nutrition.
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