Heaves in Horses – Treatment and Prevention

Those of us who have suffered from asthma can identify with the horses who suffer from heaves. While the equine disease doesn’t correlate exactly with human asthma, there are many commonalities between them. It has different triggers, different degrees of severity, but is uncomfortable for everyone involved.

What Is Heaves?

If you ask a vet for a definition of heaves, the academic answer would sound something like this: Heaves is a chronic and severe upper respiratory allergic inflammatory response in horses. In layman’s terms, this means the horse’s lungs react very strongly to things in the air, giving him a nasty, deep cough. The official name of the condition is Recurrent Airway Obstruction (RAO), and it used to be called Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), although it is very different from the human condition called COPD. Just because the word “allergic” is in the veterinary description doesn’t mean that a horse with heaves has allergies. The allergic inflammatory response in the lungs simply means that something in the air bothers a horse’s lungs when he breathes it in, and his lungs get inflamed, making him cough. The most likely culprits are mold, dust, or pollen that are naturally found in hay and straw. In addition to this, some horses also seem to be especially sensitive to seasonal pollen and spores outside.

How Do I Know If My Horse Has Heaves?

Heaves most often shows up first as a deep cough, and is worst in the spring and fall. It may start as a mild cough, then progressively get worse. Owners may also notice that their horse has a runny nose. As the condition progresses, the horse may begin wheezing as well, and flaring its nostrils with each breath. Since the horse has to work harder on breathing, an owner may notice that the horse’s stomach muscles get larger and more pronounced, even making a line show up along the horse’s side. The extra effort required for breathing can even cause some horses to lose weight in extreme cases. Heaves can be exacerbated by living in a stall, exercise, or eating dusty hay. Some horses can have a harder time breathing during exercise if a lot of these triggers are present in the environment. Heaves is diagnosed by testing the mucus in the horse’s airways to see what kind of inflammatory cells are there, and how many of them are in the mucus. Of course, heaves can also be diagnosed based on the symptoms, and how well they react (or don’t react) to treatments. Based on this, heaves is divided into three classes of severity.

My Horse Has Heaves. What Can I Do Now?

Heaves is not a condition that can be cured, only managed. Depending on the degree of the symptoms’ severity, there may be medications that help alleviate the symptoms. Regardless, certain practices seem to help most horses with heaves.

Dust and the irritating particles from the environment that it carries represent the biggest trigger for heaves. On a farm, the most dust-rich environment is a stall with dusty hay and bedding. If this is your horse’s living situation, there are ways to minimize the amount of dust that gets into his lungs. Wetting his hay or steaming it so that it is damp (not soaking or dripping!) is one way to minimize the dust. Eliminating round bales is another way to minimize your horse’s exposure to dust, since often horses plunge their whole heads into the center of the round bale to eat, thereby inhaling more particles. If your horse has heaves and is prone to flare-ups, try feeding him his hay at chest-height in his stall rather than on the ground or up high. If he has to reach his head up or down for his hay, the horse is more likely to inhale more particles into his lungs. You could also switch his diet to hay pellets, which have a much lower dust content.

You may consider switching the horse’s bedding to shavings, which have less dust than straw. Try to have maximum ventilation in the barn in general, and if possible, turn the horse out while cleaning his stall or sweeping in the barn aisle. Indeed the best possible living situation for a horse with heaves is kept outside on a grass pasture. Many owners have reported dramatic improvement in the horse’s symptoms upon switching to 24/7 turnout.

What Kind of Supplements And/Or Medications Might My Horse Need If He Has Heaves?

There are a variety of respiratory supplements available, some of which alleviate the symptoms in certain cases of heaves. We have another article that goes into detail about them. Since heaves is a disease of a heightened inflammatory response, supplements with omega-3 and 6 fatty acids are often helpful. Flaxseed oil and other supplements which have large amounts of vitamin E are high in these fatty acids and can help your horse’s body to manage inflammation better.

Turmeric is another supplement that seems to help with the inflammatory response of horses, as well as supporting the immune system in general.

If your horse has a more severe case of heaves, your vet may recommend one of the following treatments. For class II heaves (in other words, if minimizing dust does not seem to help the horse’s cough), vets may prescribe oral corticosteroids or expectorants to work directly on the tissues of the lungs, controlling inflammation or clearing out mucus that has collected there. Based on the results of mucus samples, the vet may also prescribe antibiotics if a bacterial infection is compounding the cough.

Finally, for class III heaves (if the previous treatments don’t work and environmental dust has been minimized), the vet may recommend inhaled corticosteroids or bronchodilators to alleviate the horse’s symptoms. These are administered through a special breathing device, and the medications are only to be given under the care of a vet.

Conclusion

If your horse has heaves, the best way to address the condition is to minimize or eliminate the triggers in his environment. The more time he has in fresh air, the less exposure he has to dust, the greater chance he has of living a life where he and you can both breathe easier.

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