Breathing Heavy: Heaves in Horses

If a horse with heaves must be stabled, ensure there's good ventilation and airflow in his stall or pen.

Photo: iStock

We’ve all had a hard time catching our breath at one point or another, but can you imagine if that happened on a consistent basis?

For horses with heaves, a disease much like asthma in humans, difficulties in breathing is a fact of life. And, much like asthma, we can’t cure it for our horses, but we can help to manage the signs of disease.

Heaves is an allergic reaction to inhaled particles. “Once inhaled, an allergic reaction causes the small airways in lung tissue to narrow and become obstructed,” said Gabrielle A. Landolt, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVIM, an assistant professor of equine medicine at the Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. “A combination of three factors cause the airway obstruction: inflammation and thickening of the tissue lining the airways (bronchiolitis), constriction of the smooth muscles that surround them (bronchospasm), and accumulation of mucous in the airways.”

Owners might notice horses coughing more than usual in the beginning of workouts. As the disease progresses, it becomes more easily diagnosed with nasal discharge, wheezing, increased respiration rate, and exercise intolerance.

There is no treatment for heaves, but owners can manage horses’ environments to help reduce signs of disease. Increasing ventilation in horses’ stalls is imperative. If you are unable to provide more-than-adequate airflow, consider leaving him or her turned out as much as possible.

Additionally, removing dust (well, as much as possible!) from horses’ environments and feed is crucial. Many beddings are quite dusty, such as straw and sawdust, so consider looking for less irritating alternatives. It is also important to remove affected horses from stalls during cleaning, as mucking out stirs up dust and other harmful chemicals such as ammonia.

Further, prolonged exposure to ammonia can exacerbate signs of heaves, as it irritates the lungs and respiratory track even more than they already are. Consider using a stall refresher under bedding to aid in removing ammonia from your horse’s stall.

As an affected horse’s disease progresses, your veterinarian can prescribe medications to help manage the condition in situations where environmental management alone isn’t sufficient to control clinical signs.

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