How To Treat Heaves In Horses With Dexamethasone

Last Updated on May 30, 2022

Heaves is something a horse owner never wants to deal with. Knowing how to treat heaves in horses with dexamethasone can be beneficial. Heaves can affect your horse’s performance and wellbeing, so it is important to properly treat them so your horse is no longer in discomfort.

If your horse has heaves, it is always a good idea to contact your veterinarian. Your veterinarian can help determine what is causing the heaves and the best treatment option for your horse’s needs. Oftentimes, heaves are a result of some sort of allergic reaction and they can be serious.

What Is Heaves In Horses?

Heaves is a common allergic respiratory disease in horses that is performance limiting and is most similar to asthma in people. Common symptoms include chronic cough, nasal discharge, and respiratory difficulty.

Heaves is a chronic disease that can threaten your horse’s long-term health and performance. Also known as Recurrent Airway Obstruction (RAO), generally doesn’t occur in horses until they are nine years old or older. Episodes of heaves generally occur when a horse is stabled in straw bedding and fed hay.

Horses with classic heaves exhibit flared nostrils and difficulty breathing. The abdominal muscles are used to assist with exhaling and hypertrophy of these muscles creates the classic heave line.

In milder to moderate cases, horses generally have minimal clinical signs at rest, however, coughing and intolerance to exercise are noted during the performance. Horses with heaves will not have a fever unless secondary pneumonia has developed.

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What Causes Heaves In Horses? – Heaves In Horses With Dexamethasone

Heaves generally occur in horses that are older. It is more likely to happen with horses that are routinely stalled and fed hay, with closely confined travel in a poorly ventilated trailer being another contributing factor. Heaves can be genetic pre-disposition brought on by these factors.

Triggers for heaves include mold, hay, and barn dust, along with fumes and particulates from vehicle exhausts when traveling. These triggers can cause bronchoconstriction, which is the airway narrowing in the lung and accumulation of pus and mucus within a horse’s airways.

Treating Heaves In Horses

Though there is no cure for heaves, it can be managed with changes in the environment and in more serious cases, medication. The sooner heaves is diagnosed, the more manageable it can be in most cases.

The best way to manage heaves is to make change’s in your horse’s environment. Allow your horse to be on pasture turn out as much as possible, with fresh grass as a source of roughage along with pelleted food.

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When your horse is stalled, consider soaking their hay, feeding hay cubes or feeding them complete feed. Keep as many windows open as possible to improve ventilation in the barn. Instead of using straw or shavings as bedding, switch to cardboard/paper bedding.

In more serious cases, inhaled corticosteroids (“puffers”) or oral steroids such as prednisolone or dexamethasone can be administered. They will reduce the inflammation in the lungs, resolving the symptoms in most affected horses. In other cases, a bronchodilator such as clenbuterol is used alongside steroids, but if used alone it will lose its effect after 14 days.

What Is Dexamethasone? – Heaves In Horses With Dexamethasone

Dexamethasone is a synthetic corticosteroid hormone used in managing inflammation in diseases or conditions such as heaves. It has anti-inflammatory effects that are about twenty-five times stronger than those of natural cortisol. It is FDA approved for horses, along with other animals.

In addition to heaves, dexamethasone is also used for hives, respiratory allergies, itching, and inflammatory diseases including arthritis. In emergency situations such as anaphylactic reactions, spinal cord trauma, or shock, it may be administered in considerably higher dosages than normal. It can also be used topically to treat skin and eye conditions.

How To Treat Heaves In Horses With Dexamethasone

Dexamethasone as a treatment for heaves can be given intravenously or orally. When given via intravenous administration, a horse’s lung function should improve within two hours. When given orally, it has a bioavailability of about 60%, improving lung function within 6 hours of administration.

In more serious cases, it may be administered for one to several weeks in tapering doses. A veterinarian will provide a prescription for your horse if they will benefit from dexamethasone for the management of heaves.

Treating Heaves In Horses With Dexamethasone

Side Effects Of This Drug – Heaves In Horses With Dexamethasone

Dexamethasone is one of the most potent and effective ways to treat heaves in horses. One of the biggest side effects of dexamethasone is the increased risk of founder in horses. In long-term uses of dexamethasone, increased urination, increased water intake and muscle have been reported.

The use of dexamethasone may cause or worsen gastric ulcers. In addition, horses may be more susceptible to bacterial or viral infections. Be sure to take with your veterinarian about any side effects your horse may experience from taking dexamethasone.

Managing Heaves In Horses

For horses with heaves, the best way to manage their symptoms is to limit their exposure to dust, mold and fumes. In more serious cases, dexamethasone can be administered to help alleviate symptoms.

Do you have any questions regarding managing heaves in horses with dexamethasone? If so, please ask any questions regarding heaves in horses in the comments.


How Much Dexamethasone Do You Give a Horse?

Your veterinarian will provide you with the proper dosage of Dexamethasone to give your horse based on their condition and size. Be sure to only give Dexamethasone as recommended by your veterinarian.

What is the Best Treatment for Heaves in Horses?

The best treatment for heaves in horses is a change in environment. Try to keep your horse on turn out as much as possible and when in a stall, provide ventilation, soaked or cubed hay and avoid using straw or shavings. In more serious cases, corticosteroids, oral steroids or bronchodilators may be administered.

Is Dexamethasone Safe for Horses?

Dexamethasone is safe for horses when prescribed by your veterinarian. Be sure to go over all of the side effects with your veterinarian and let them know of any pre-existing conditions your horse has, as it is not recommended for horses prone to founder.

Will a Nebulizer Help a Horse with Heaves?

An equine nebulizer can be used to help a horse with heaves. Be sure to take with your veterinarian to see what the right option is for your horse.