Ammonia is a colourless gas with a characteristic pungent smell. Horses excrete urea in both urine and faeces and this is rapidly converted to ammonia. Ammonia molecules tend to be deposited in the upper and proximal lower airways where they primarily cause musical irritation, inflammation and dysfunction, promote mucus secretion and airway narrowing and disrupt defences against other inhaled particles.
Like many noxious gases, ammonia probably acts additively or synergistically with other inhaled non-infectious or infectious agents, or exacerbates pre-existing disease processes such as asthma, or modulate T-lymphocyte responses and decrease pulmonary immunity. Heaves (Inflammatory Airway Disease (IAD) or Recurrent Airway Disease (RAD)) is a very common condition in horses. IAD and RAD are known to be caused by inhaling irritants like dust and ammonia and/or allergens. Ammonia may also enhance the Inflammatory response in airways induced by other dust agents, particularly endotoxin and bacteria, and therefore may be an important additive component in the generation of IAD in horses.
While ammonia levels in stables will inevitably have peaks and troughs, it is long term low level exposure to noxious gases that more commonly results in airway inflammation than acute exposures. In the beginning horses with ammonia induced airway disease will suffer from decreased stamina and will tend to cough during exercise. Prolonged exposure leads to horses that have an increased respiratory effort even at rest that can progress to difficulty breathing. In extreme cases, horses with RAD will lose weight due to the difficulty of breathing while trying to eat.
It is not uncommon for a horse to have a respiratory tract infection between the ages of two and six months. Ammonia inhalation can exacerbate the respiratory disease, which can lead to pneumonia.
Prevention is better than cure has long been a true saying, and with no simple solution available from the veterinary cabinet it is important to focus on environmental management. Experts advise that this is the single most important factor in ammonia reduction and the improvement of respiratory health for horses in general. In particular, owners should focus on the horses ‘breathing zone’, the two foot sphere around the horses nose from where they draw their breath.
Using a product that reduces the amount of ammonia present in the barn or stall can significantly assist in the control of ammonia levels and in some cases can reduce the ‘elbow grease’ required. Additionally some products will encapsulate dust and provide further advantages. The most popular options are:
Traditionally lime based products have been used in barns and stalls. These products have the disadvantage that they do not actually absorb or neutralise the odour, they just cover it up. Some are also caustic which is not recommended.
These products use a mixture of minerals that tend to include ingredients such as earth, clay and natural minerals. While these products are non-toxic, moisture absorbing and trap ammonia they add to the workload of the owner or workers. Apart from absorbing ammonia there are little other benefits to their use.
In simple terms this is using one type of bacteria to eat the problem bacteria. While this type of product is widely used in a number of different applications to remove odours, research has shown that enzyme based products may be responsible for triggering things like asthma on their own, work extremely slowly and may cause other issues if the horse eats its own bedding and consumes the bacteria.
A scientific break-through, Equissential should be used as part of the mucking out regime. This product immediately encapsulates and removes the ammonia molecules permanently. Additional benefits include protection against virus and disease and the product is safe to use around your horse, is non-irritant and bio-degradable.