3 Ways Winter Complicates Viral Respiratory Infection in Horses

Boarding barns are a little like daycare. If one horse gets sick, it’s just a matter of time before the whole barn is exposed.

Playful Geldings Share Mischief & Hopefully Not Germs!

Playful Geldings Share Mischief & Hopefully Not Germs!

There is a mild viral respiratory bug (thankfully not Strangles and not Herpes) making the rounds in the D.C. Metropolitan area. I keep my mare at a very clean barn with excellent horse-health management. And she has not been off the property since she arrived almost 2 years ago. Even with the best hygiene practices, trainers, farriers, and vets visit; new horses arrive; and boarders take trail rides or lessons off-site. Over the fall, a handful of horses presented with snotty noses, coughs, fever, or stocked-up legs.

A horse 3 stalls away from my mare had a positive culture for Streptococcus equi zooepidemicus (“Strep Zoo”). This bacteria is common in the respiratory tract of horses. When a viral infection has dampened a horse’s immune system, Strep Zoo can take over and result in nasal discharge, coughing, and pneumonia.

Last week, my mare’s breathing sounded hollow, but with a clear nose and clean tight legs, I figured it might just be the dusty indoor arena. Saturday the barn manager sent me a note that her nose was a mess.

She has been quarantined since. As difficult as it has been, I have not gone within 20 feet of her. The vet administered the first of three doses of EqStim. This Neogen product is intended to boost the immune system so that the body can better fight the secondary bacterial infection. The mare is also receiving daily doses of oral antibiotic. While it is never a good time to have a virus in your barn, winter makes prevention and treatment especially difficult.

  1. Exercise in cold weather inflames a horse’s airways. This can suppress the immune response for up to 48 hours afterwards! Winter air can also dry out the mucosa in the nose and throat. Horses tend to drink less in winter, so dehydration is common. Barns and indoors tend to get dusty. This leaves a horse more susceptible to asthma and infection. Tip: If the mercury dips to 23 degrees or lower, keep your rides at the walk only. Use a bucket warmer and keep a salt lick readily available.
  2. Horses are in confined spaces more often in winter. On snowy nights, horses huddle together in pasture or breathe in the shared air in a closed barn. The indoor arena is crowded. The potential for infection is high. Tip: Be aware of a drop in appetite, snotty nose, coughing, dull eyes, lack of energy, increased respiration or fever and remove symptomatic horses from the herd as soon as possible.
  3. Humans (and horses!) are wearing more clothes that are less washable. Boarders, barn staff, vets, and farriers may be diligent to wash their hands, rinse boots, and launder breeches. But what about fleece-lined leather riding gloves? A waterproof oilskin barn jacket? These winter essentials aren’t made to be washed with detergent and hot water. Tip: If possible avoid symptomatic horses. Make a disinfecting solution of 1/4 cup bleach per gallon of water for boots, plastic, and rubber. Handle symptomatic horses last. Wash hands often. Wear disposable rubber gloves atop winter gloves and discard after each use.

Do you have experience with prevention and containment of respiratory infection? Share your tips in the comments!


9 thoughts on “3 Ways Winter Complicates Viral Respiratory Infection in Horses

  1. Sorry to hear about Murmz being under the weather. Its hard when there are so many horses in the heard, daycare is right! We’ve been lucky and haven’t had the bug over at our barn but our paddocks have a smaller number of horses in them, i think that helps. I hope your baby is 100% very soon! Give her a smooch for me!

    • Thank you Lola! I think you’re right: smaller herds in smaller pastures probably does help to limit infection. Poor Murmer hasn’t caught a break in 2013. Next year (the year of the horse!) will be better, I just know it. Big smooch, coming right up. Make sure to wash everything when you and Mr. Perfect get home from his lessons, just to be on the safe side.

  2. Great summary and very helpful tips. It is also important to know that Strep equis subspecies zoonoticus can also infect cats and dogs (some of these can be lethal if not detected and have
    been reported in kennels) and people, especially individuals whose immune system is weakened. Hand and respiratory hygiene are therefore very important to consider for humans who are around horses. This is not meant to raise panic-just awareness. 🙂

  3. Thanks for sharing the barn tips! I work as a seasonal/temporary interpreter at a local Metropark Farm Center and have separate barn clothes/work attire – so NOT to bring home any ‘bugs’ from the Farm stock. Call me cRaZy or prudent! Hope your ‘baby’ feels better soon!!

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