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December 1, 2016 – Asthma, which causes swelling in the airways and difficulty breathing, is typically thought of as a human disease but also can occur in horses. In fact, equine asthma (recurrent airway obstruction) is one of the most common respiratory problems seen in horses. The disease leads to progressive breathing difficulty, severely impacting the quality of life for horses that suffer from it. 

Allergens or irritants – something difficult for affected horses on pasture or in barns to avoid – can trigger asthma attacks. For the horse’s short and long-term health, treatment of equine asthma needs to be quick and effective. For owners and veterinarians, treatment also needs to be cost-effective and practical. 

Morris Animal Foundation-funded researchers Drs. Jackie Bowser and Cyprianna Swiderski, at Mississippi State University, decided to tackle this problem. They knew that an intravenous infusion of magnesium directly relaxes airways as well as inhibiting other substances and cells that contribute to airway closure during an asthma attack. The drug had been used in people, and the research team wanted to investigate if it would work in horses. 

The researchers tested their theory on six horses diagnosed with equine asthma. They were able to demonstrate that intravenous magnesium given during an attack resulted in marked improvement in breathing in all the horses. None of the horses had any long-term negative effects from the infusion. Magnesium is inexpensive, is easy to administer, and is readily available to veterinarians in both hospitals and mobile practices. The group has used the treatment in an additional three horses with asthma, and all benefited from this therapy. 

For both horses and their human companions, an asthma attack can be a frightening, and sometimes fatal, medical emergency. Having a rapid, inexpensive, and effective treatment gives horse lovers new hope for keeping their four-legged friends from suffering the ill effects of an asthma attack, and giving them a better chance at a healthy life. 

Learn more about our work in horses and asthma.