​The Dangers of Deep Litter Bedding for Horse Respiratory Health

​The Dangers of Deep Litter Bedding for Horse Respiratory Health

Nortev Ltd- The Designers and Manufacturers of Flexineb on 7th Dec 2021

Deep litter bedding is a popular method to save time on mucking out, especially during the Winter months. However, there are many hidden dangers in deep litter bedding that can impact on your horse’s health, as well as your own, if poorly managed.

Due to the health concerns associated with deep litter bedding, we advise approaching this method with caution and avoid relying on it entirely. While there are benefits of deep litter bedding – in terms of time, cost, and convenience – the risks must be properly understood.

In this article, we offer advice on deep litter bedding, the known health risks to you and your horse, and the alternative horse bedding methods that you should try.

While we advise against deep litter bedding, we understand it is a common practice and with a focus on your horse’s health and welfare, improvements can be made.

Deep Litter Bedding

So, what is deep litter bedding? This type of horse bedding is nothing new. Deep litter bedding has long historical roots in horse husbandry.

Deep litter bedding refers to the process of removing manure and any soiled horse bedding and replacing the top layer with fresh shavings or straw. It differs from mucking out in that only the top layer is cleaned, and the compacted layers underneath remain untouched.

Deep litter bedding is most popular in livery yards and other facilities that house large numbers of horses. While it’s a convenient and economical option, cutting horse bedding costs and saving time, the risks of deep litter bedding to horse and human health are high.

The Risks of Deep Litter Bedding

While the focus of this article is on horse respiratory health, it’s important to understand there are a range of health risks linked to deep litter bedding. These include:

  • Bacteria and parasites – Due to the time that may lapse between full muck-outs, deep litter bedding allows bacteria and parasites to proliferate. This can lead to skin issues, hoof problems, worms, mites, and lice. These microorganisms can deplete the immune system, increasing the risk of secondary infections.
  • Dust and mould – These harmful particles are not only detrimental to the health of our horses, but they can also impact on our respiratory health. Dusty horse bedding, poor stable ventilation, and inadequate cleaning and disinfecting practices together create a toxic environment in terms of air quality.
  • Stable injuries – The choice of bedding must provide appropriate support for the horse when standing and lying down. This is key in preventing injuries, such as capped hocks or elbows, that can occur in stables. Thick bedding and high banks are also integral in avoiding a horse becoming cast, and alleviating injuries if they do.

Equine Respiratory Disease and Ammonia

Ammonia is a hazardous natural gas which is formed by bacteria. When excess protein in the diet is expelled by the horse in their urine and manure, it is called urea. The bacteria feed on this urea, thus producing ammonia.

Ammonia doesn’t just smell bad, it can also irritate the skin, eyes, nasal passages, sinuses, respiratory tract, and lungs of both you and your horse. At severe levels, exposure to ammonia can have chronic, irreversible, and possibly life-threatening consequences.

Numerous studies have confirmed that ammonia leads to respiratory problems in horses. Ammonia irritates the horse’s respiratory system and is unsafe for any horse with a pre-existing respiratory issue.

The risks of ammonia are further compounded by the stable environment if ventilation is poor, limiting the amount of air that can circulate. The longer stables are left with deep litter bedding, the more ammonia fumes are inevitably inhaled by the horse.

It’s not only ammonia at nose level, but also fumes that may be present at floor level. This is worsened when horses lie down to sleep, including foals that typically spend more time lying down and have more susceptible respiratory and immune systems.

Ammonia damages your horse’s respiratory and immune systems. It may also be implicated in inflammatory airway disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Reducing ammonia is achieved in three critical ways:

  • Regularly picking up manure and soiled horse bedding
  • Routinely mucking out the stall completely, ideally daily
  • Providing a stabled environment that is designed to allow sufficient natural light and air flow to remove ammonia and other harmful airborne bacteria

Better Bedding Practices for Horse Respiratory Health

The reality is that deep litter bedding is the least suitable option for horse health, including of the respiratory tract. Let’s explore what other mucking out systems are available:

  • Full muck-out: A daily full muck-out is the best option for your horse’s health. It prevents the build-up of harmful fumes, particles, bacteria, and parasites – and all the health problems that stem from these, as we’ve outlined above.
  • Part muck-out: Manure and soiled horse bedding is removed daily and a full muck-out is completed once or twice a week.

The British Horse Society provides further information on their website regarding horse bedding, which you can access here.

In addition to a full daily muck-out, there are several other sound stable management practices you can employ to support your horse’s respiratory health, including:

  • Provide daily turnout in an adjoining yard or better yet, in a paddock with other horses to encourage exercise.
  • Speak with your veterinarian or a qualified equine nutritionist about your horse’s diet to ensure they’re getting the right amount of protein for their needs.
  • Use the Flexineb® E3 Complete System to administer prescribed medications and natural therapies if your horse has a pre-existing respiratory condition.

Disclaimer: This article is not intended to replace professional veterinary advice. Always consult your veterinarian if your horse as any health-related issue or is exhibiting symptoms.

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  • Horse respiratory health
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  • Ammonia