The Harmful Effects of Ammonia
We have all walked into a barn and inhaled the familiar scent of ammonia. Even in carefully cleaned stalls, traces of this odor still exist. The source of this odor stems from the breakdown of equine waste, which produces ammonia. Ammonia is a harmful gas that could contribute to reduced performance and overall decreased health of your horse. The ammonia gas is not only unpleasant, it can be dangerous. The fumes are capable of burning and irritating the eyes and lungs. If you can discover the existence of ammonia gas by its smell, it is already twice the concentration at which it becomes harmful to any creature that breathes it or is constantly exposed to it.
Ammonia evolves by the decomposition of urine and manure. Horses expel excess protein, that is not metabolized during digestion, through urine in the form of urea. Because a horse can eliminate as much as 1-1 1/2 gallons of urine at a time, no amount of bedding can catch that much urine. The urine can leak into dark, hidden places and once that happens naturally occurring anaerobic bacteria feeds on the nutrients of the urea-rich liquid, with this process resulting in making ammonia. Straw bedding soiled with manure and urine tends to produce more ammonia gas than sawdust/shavings.
In a study by the Equine Pulmonary Laboratory at Michigan State University's School of Veterinary Medicine, they found that young horses, stabled during training, suffered respiratory distress when compared to pastured horses of the same age. While dust and mold in feed and bedding played a part in pulmonary problems, it is believed that exposure to ammonia also negatively impacts their respiratory systems. "Besides just being unpleasant in a barn, ammonia gas burns the delicate tissues of the respiratory tract and the eyes and increases mucus production. We conclude that stabling is associated with inflammation of both the upper and lower airway of young horses."
Foals are more susceptible to the effects of ammonia gas, partly because their lungs are more delicate than those of adult horses, and partly because foals are small and short, thus subjected to a higher concentration of the fumes, which hang low in stalls. Foals lie down more often and for longer periods of time than an adult horse, putting them closer to the concentration of the ammonia gas.
Ammonia gas is not only bad for horses but for humans as well. It is wise to limit exposure to the fumes. Horse owners can adapt better ways to house their horses and reduce ammonia exposure. The following are some steps that you can take to achieve your goal:
- Keep your horse outside as much as possible. Fresh air, constant grazing and regular movement, have multiple benefits. Warm, closed up barns can create an ammonia problem by the heat encouraging bacterial growth along with agitating ammonia molecules and causing the gas to rise. Horses are healthier and happier outside.
- Clean your stall on a regular basis. Clean your stalls daily or twice daily by removing visible urine and wet bedding. Choose a bedding with a high absorbency level to help lower the levels of ammonia in a stall. Straw is the least absorbent and not the best choice other than for foaling. Once the foal is born, strip the stall and replace with an absorbent bedding such as shavings.
- Consult your equine veterinarian or nutritionist. While protein is important, consult your equine specialist about forming a diet specific to your horse's needs and eliminate unnecessary protein, which contributes to excess urine production.
- Make sure you have good ventilation. When you must stall your horse, make sure that you provide adequate ventilation. Tight barns do not allow the ammonia fumes to escape. Good ventilation provides areas where air can enter and escape the barn, allowing distribution of air evenly. This will help regulate temperature and moisture levels and contribute to the removal of odors and gases. You may have to consider some kind of forced air circulation to deal with the building levels of ammonia gases.
- Eliminate the areas where urine collects. Try using interlocking or seamless stall mats and sealing them to prevent urine from escaping through the cracks. Bedding, mixed with a quality neutralizing product, can then be applied on top of the mats. The use of lime on the floor, after the stall is cleaned and before new bedding is put in, can help slow the growth of bacteria and reduce odors.
Ammonia gas can be significantly reduced if the right things are done simultaneously with available methods and management practices that involve ventilation, manure management, building cleanliness, and feed management.