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As military life takes us around the country, I have been able to experience a tremendous variety of equestrian sports, venues, professionals and – of course – equine health issues. Our current home in Kentucky brought another learning opportunity in the form of seasonal allergies in horses.
Every equestrian knows that horses have a bizarre and unlimited ability to hurt themselves. I try to walk the line between proactive about Elf’s health without crossing over into alarmist and throwing the entire Smartpak catalog at the poor guy. Generally, I’m dealing with scrapes and bumps or the occasionally pulled shoe (sometimes with a significant portion of his foot). Which means that when I arrived at the barn and found him with blood dripping from his nose avoiding panic required a few deep breaths.
We quickly established that no one had noticed anything when he’d been brought in about 8:30. He’d been in his stall, eaten breakfast and been quietly hanging out until I arrived around noon. My barn manager helped me to clean out his nostril and look for a possible cause. The blood wasn’t completely dry but wasn’t the bright red of a fresh wound either. He seemed a little subdued as well, so we took his temperature. At 100.8, he didn’t exactly have a fever – but it was elevated for him. Elf normally runs about 99 degrees or slightly lower. Just after work on a hot day, he’ll be 100.7 to 101. For him to be sitting at 100.8 while sitting on under his fan resting, we had a good indicator that something was going on.
Side note, situations like this are why it is really important that you are familiar with your horse’s resting vitals – temp, heart rate, respiration.
After getting hosed off and checked over thoroughly, Elf was his normal self and no more blood had appeared. It was (entirely) possible that he had simply banged his head on something (probably his hay rack) and given himself a nose bleed. But three hours later, he still had an elevated temperature and a slow trickle of blood had again crusted that same nostril. A quick call to the vet later, and we decided that he should stay in so we could monitor how much it was bleeding over night and they would come out to see him in the morning.
Elf presented the vet with his usual charming personality – which almost always has vets petting and complimenting him within minutes. As she walked through a quick exam, she commented that he didn’t appear to have any head trauma, was in good weight, was eating comfortably. But with a quick listen to his lungs, allergies presented as the likely cause. While there was no wheezing and no one had heard him coughing (the usual symptom), the crackle and pop of allergy inflammation were easily detected. For a solid assessment, we opted to do a video endoscopy (otherwise known as sticking a video camera on a tube up his nose). The video confirmed the irritation and inflammation of allergies and showed that his reaction was at a surprisingly severe level considering there had been zero symptoms 36 hours ago.
How are seasonal allergies in horses diagnosed?
Elf’s allergies were diagnosed when he suddenly presented a bloody nose that maintained a slow drip for about 20 hours. Looking back, though, there were some other warning signs that I didn’t recognize. Just like people, equine seasonal allergies may show up with nasal congestion, clear nasal discharge, and irritated eyes. An unproductive, persistent cough that is exacerbated by exercise is one of the most common symptoms that lead to a seasonal allergy diagnosis. Hives, extreme itchiness and skin irritation are another possible reaction.
Since hindsight is 20/20 and all that, I can see some pretty clear indicators that allergies were becoming more and more of an issue. He’s had a bit of a gunky nose (that’s a technical term, you know) for the last month or two. I had chalked that up to his insistence on plunging his entire face directly in the center of the round bale while turned out. He has also consistently had scrapes and cuts on his face. I’d assumed they were coming from his playing in turnout. One major difference this spring: it has been impossible to keep his fly mask on. Consistently, it has been off within an hour of being turned out. Unfortunately for Elf, he really needs to wear it because his chrome-y nose sunburns badly. I couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t working because he’s worn a Cashel long nose fly mask for the four years I’ve had him without a problem. Now, it’s clear that he was rubbing his face because of allergies and the fly mask didn’t stand a chance. Although it’s not certain, I’ve also struggled with his fitness this Spring. Even riding four or five times a week wasn’t producing the results that it has previously. I’m hoping that once we get the allergies under control his normal energy level will return.
Treating Seasonal Allergies in Horses
For Elf, there were two aspects to his immediate treatment: address the inflammation and irritation that was causing the bleeding in his sinus & nasal passage and cut off the beginnings of infection that were also spurring that low-grade fever. His vet recommended an antihistamine 2x a day and an antibiotic. The last thing we want him dealing with is an infection on top of the allergy-driven histamine response!
Of course, meds multiple times a day with his food means that I won’t be the one giving it. The meds in this situation are both powders that need to be scooped out and mixed into his feed. To make things as easy (and trackable) as possible. I scooped his meds into 2 sets of Ziploc bags – one for the AM feeding with his antibiotic and antihistamine and one for the PM feeding with just the allergy med. These go in the drawer with his SmartPaks to keep everything in one place for barn staff. After his 10 days of antibiotics are up, we’ll try switching to the allergy med being scooped into his feed. To support his breathing, I’ve also added Spirulina to his Smartpak to fight inflammation.
Managing Seasonal Allergies in Horses
For the last few days, I’ve been getting in touch with my experienced horse owning friends, calling vets, posting in my favorite equestrian Facebook groups and crawling the internet for allergy management strategies. A few recommendations were consistently recommended.
Reducing Dust – Dust, as any of us who have sneezed our way through cleaning a neglected tack or feed room can attest, irritates our respiratory system. For a horse whose airways are already inflamed and irritated, dust makes things worse. Minimizing the dust in your horse’s environment is key during allergy season. For Elf, this means that his stall will need to be stripped and the shavings replaced on a regular basis. He is remarkably clean in his stall so very few shavings are removed on a daily basis. Eventually, the clean shavings are ground into dust. Regularly stripping & re-bedding his stall will keep the flakes larger and less likely to irritate his airways.
Ground Feeding – Feeding your horse from the ground reduces dust in the air and promotes the drainage of any mucus or discharge.
Wet Feed – Cutting down on any kind of inhalable particles is key to minimizing irritation in the airways, so go ahead and wet down their grain and hay if you can (it can also make meds more palatable as a bonus!).
Extended Turnout – No matter how clean your barn is, dust builds up. For many horses with allergies & compromised breathing, outside is better. Night turnout is beneficial if they are allergic to environmental irritants like pollen that bloom during the day.
A Clean Face – Irritants like pollen have a tendency to stick with you. A quick wipe down of your horse’s face (especially nostrils, around the eyes and eyelashes) does an excellent job reducing that continued irritation. I use soft auto detail rags with a dab of tear-free baby shampoo followed by wipe down with a damp rag. I bought a pack of 20 or so rags at Walmart, keeping the used ones in a mesh laundry back in my truck that I take home once a week and wash in a sanitize cycle. I noticed an immediate difference in the nasal discharge/crustiness when I started doing this whenever I go to the barn.
We are still in the early stages of treating Elf’s allergies but with no recurrence of his bloody nose, I’m feeling hopeful. Next up? Seeing if we can regain and maintain some fitness while the Kentucky pollen blooms!