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Is Your Barn Toxic? — Fall 2010 | Out Here Magazine

Ammonia can damage your horse's respiratory system

By Carol Davis

That noxious smell of ammonia in your barn is more than just an assault to the nose; it's a health risk to your animal.

Even low levels of ammonia can cause upper respiratory tract problems for horses, putting them at risk for pneumonia and other serious illnesses, studies have revealed.

"In the last decade, there's been more documentation that shows that ammonia is not just a nuisance odor that implies facilities are not hygienic but that there's health consequences to prevalent levels of it," says Tom Menner, president of Sweet PDZ, a stall freshener manufacturer. "Respiratory irritants can become major and costly health issues."

When a horse urinates in his stall, it seeps through bedding and into stall mats or deep bedding. Bacteria feed on the nutrients in urea and produce ammonia, a noxious gas that rises and is inhaled by your horse.

At best, the acrid gas creates an unpleasant stench; at worst, it damages tissue in the horse's respiratory tract and affects mucus membranes.

Possible results? Pneumonia, heaves, or equine COPD, more commonly known as asthma.

Foals are particularly susceptible to ammonia's damaging effects, with their immature respiratory system and because they spend a great deal of time lying in stall bedding, says Dr. Frederick Harper, extension horse specialist for the University of Tennessee.

About 15 percent of all foals have severe respiratory disease before they reach the end of their first year, Harper says in a study. "It is important to reduce the level of ammonia in foaling stalls, and all stalls in barns where foals reside," he writes.

Horses recovering from injury also are more exposed to ammonia's toxic fumes when they lie in stall bedding, Menner says.

Control ammonia by using quality bedding material, cleaning the stall daily, giving it a thorough cleaning weekly, and providing good ventilation, Menner says.

Such measures control, but can't prevent, ammonia buildup. "Even if a person is fastidious in cleaning their stalls, they'll still have some degree of ammonia," he says.

That's why ammonia-reducing products, such as Sweet PDZ, are critical to horse health, Menner says.

Harper's studies bear that out. Tests revealed that 75 percent of horses kept on bedding without any ammonia-reducing compounds suffered inflamed pharynxes — the area between the mouth and esophagus.

In contrast, only 25 percent of horses stabled with an ammonia-reducing product had inflamed pharynxes.

Carol Davis is editor of Out Here.