Your horse has a runny nose!

Your horse has a snotty nose.  It’s as plain as the, well, snot, all over his nose, front legs and wherever else he can wipe it on.  Yuck!

Determining the source and cause of nasal discharge can be a challenge to diagnose in the horse due to the complicated anatomy of their skull. The horse has two main sinus cavities (frontal and maxillary) in the head, as well as several smaller ones.  The upper back molars communicate with the sinuses.  The main sinus communicates with the nasal passages.  It is a complex and intertwined system that can lead to much confusion in trying to figure out where all of that snot is coming from.

When you first discover the nasal discharge, take note of a few things:

  • What color is it?
  • Does it come from one or both nostrils?
  • Does it have an odor?
  • Does your horse have a fever?
  • Is he lethargic?
  • Have an appetite?

Next, think about whether or not your horse has been exposed to any other horses:

  • Have you been to a show?
  • Are their new additions in the stable?
  • Are there any sick horses in contact with yours?

This information will help TEVA better diagnose the cause of your horse’s symptoms.

The common causes of nasal discharge include stranglessinus infectionstooth problems, and guttural pouch infections. Bilateral (both nostrils) occurs when the source of the mucus is distal to the nasal openings.  This would include strangles and guttural pouch infections.  Unilateral discharge (one nostril) occurs when the mucus comes from the opening in the nasal passage, such as with a sinus infection, or a tooth root problem. When it is a tooth root problem, the discharge generally has a foul odor.

To accurately diagnose the problem, your horse will likely need to have an endoscopic exam and/or radiographs, as well as blood work, and cultures.

In an endoscopic exam, a small thin tube with a camera on the end is inserted up the nose.  This allows us to see the nasal passages, the opening of the maxillary sinus in the nasal passages, the guttural pouches and the trachea.  This can help determine where, exactly, the mucus is coming from.

radiograph (x-ray) can show fluid within the sinus or guttural pouches.  In severe cases of gutteral pouch infections small concretions of mucus, called chondroids, develop.  These can be seen via radiograph. A radiograph can also be used to evaluate tooth root abscesses, cracked or broken teeth, or a tooth that is completely worn down.

Blood work can confirm the infection via a white blood count and fibrinogen.  A special blood test can be used to test for strangles.

Finally, a sample of the discharge may be taken from the nasal passage, the guttural pouches, the sinus, or from the trachea.  This can be can be used for a culture, in which we can grow whatever bacteria may be lurking in your horse’s nose.

Once you have a diagnosis, you and TEVA can plan a course of treatment.  Strangles is often left to run its course, unless the horse is in severe distress.  Antibiotics are given in this case.  Sinus and guttural pouch infections usually require long term antibiotic therapy and sometimes flushing the sinus or pouches.  A tooth root problem is also treated with antibiotics, flushing the sinus, and properly treating the tooth.  Most of the time, the tooth will need to be removed and the hole packed with dental cement. Treatment is very rewarding in most cases!  Some severe cases of sinus, guttural pouch, or tooth problems may require surgery.  Fortunately, these are the exceptions.

Once again, having a little knowledge will help you to help your house when illness strikes.  Being able to provide information to your TEVA veterinarian will help speed the diagnosis process and get your horse on the right course of treatment in a timely manner.


Registered 2011 by Equestrian Collections
Author:  Sallie S. Hyman,  VMD, DACVIM, CVA

Information in this article is for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for evaluation by an equine professional.  In particular, all horse owners should seek advice and treatment from a licensed veterinarian, such as TEVA, for their horses' medical care.         

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