Last Updated on October 23, 2022
If your horse has recently been diagnosed with heaves, you’ll be on the look out for the best treatment for heaves in horses. This common disorder of horses is complex and difficult to manage, and once a horse has heaves, it will be susceptible to respiratory problems for the rest of its life. Let’s find out everything you need to know about the best treatment for heaves in horses and how to help a horse with this complex condition.
What Is Heaves In Horses?
Heaves is a respiratory disease of horses, caused by an allergic response to certain pathogens. This disorder is more correctly known as recurrent airway obstruction (RAO), and you may also hear it referred to as chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), broken wind, or emphysema.
Heaves is not an infectious disease and cannot be passed from horse to horse. It occurs when the body becomes oversensitive to certain pathogens, which stimulates an allergic response. This condition is very similar to asthma in humans.
It is thought that over one in ten horses suffer with heaves in one form or another. Horses of any breed, age or gender can get heaves, although it is more common in horses of nine years of age or older.
What Causes Heaves In Horses?
As with asthma in humans, there are many things that can trigger heaves in horses. The most prevalent cause of heaves in horses is an allergy to dust and mold spores found in hay, straw, and other types of bedding. These horses are more likely to suffer an episode of heaves during the winter months when they are stable for longer periods and are consuming larger amounts of hay.
The other common type of heaves in horses is triggered by airborne pollen. This is called summer pasture-associated heaves, as it occurs during the warmer months when pollen counts are higher. These horses will normally have minimal symptoms during the winter months.
Regardless of the cause of heaves, the symptoms are the same. When the pathogens are inhaled, an allergic response will be triggered which causes the tissues within the lungs to swell and become constricted. This causes a narrowing of the airways and makes it difficult for the horse to inhale enough air.
This creates the classic respiratory symptoms associated with heaves in horses. Their respiratory rate will be faster and they will take rapid shallow breaths, often with flared nostrils. In an effort to draw more air into the lungs, the abdominal muscles are required to work harder. This creates a line along the side of the body where the muscles become more developed, called a heave line.
Horses with very mild symptoms of heaves may just have a mild cough and reduced energy levels when exercised.
What Is The Best Treatment For Heaves In Horses?
Heaves in horses is triggered by an allergic response to specific pathogens. When looking into the best treatment for heaves in horses, it is vital to take every step possible to reduce the horse’s exposure to these pathogens. In this disease, medication can only be used to alleviate the symptoms, and prevention is far better than the cure.
If the horse has heaves that are triggered by dust and mold, then every effort must be taken to eliminate this from the horse’s environment. The horse should be turned out to pasture as much as possible. If it is necessary to stable the horse, there are many steps you can take to keep the environment dust free.
The main triggers of heaves in horses are dust from hay and straw. Dust-free bedding such as shredded paper or wood chips should be used in place of straw, and the stable should be well-ventilated at all times. Hay can be soaked to reduce the level of dust particles or can be switched to a dust-free alternative such as haylage.
The best treatment for heaves in horses that are triggered by pollen is to reduce the horse’s exposure to high levels of pollen. A good solution is to keep the horse stabled during the day and turn them out at pasture at night when the pollen count is lower. Nose nets are also available that can filter out pollen when the horse breathes.
In more severe cases of heaves, medical therapy may also be necessary. This normally consists of a bronchodilator to help short-term alleviation of the respiratory symptoms, combined with an anti-inflammatory to reduce inflammation. The ideal method of administrating these medicines is through an aerosol inhaler.
How Long Can A Horse Live With Heaves?
The length of time a horse can live with heaves will depend on the severity of the condition and the number of attacks of heaves the horse suffers from. If the disease is kept under control with a good management strategy, and the horse rarely suffers from an attack of heaves, it can live a long and happy life.
Every attack of heaves causes a small amount of scarring and fibrous tissue within the lungs, and eventually, the horse will deteriorate to the point that it can no longer breathe normally.
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Should I Buy A Horse With Heaves?
Heaves is a lifelong condition of horses that cannot be cured but can be kept under control with a good management strategy. Before buying a horse with leaves, you should carefully consider whether you can meet the individual care needs of this horse and keep exposure to dust, mold, and pollen to a minimum.
Riding a horse with heaves is possible as long as the symptoms are kept under control with a good management strategy and appropriate medication. If the horse starts to cough when exercised or appears lethargic, it should not be ridden.
Summary – Treatment For Heaves In Horses
So, as we have learned, the best treatment for heaves in horses is to try and eliminate the pathogens that cause an allergic respiratory response. In horses that are allergic to dust and mold spores, this may mean changing the bedding to a dust-free option, soaking hay, or swapping to haylage. Horses with summer pasture-associated heaves will need to be kept stable during periods of high pollen activity.
We’d love to hear your thoughts on the best treatment for heaves in horses! Are you struggling to get your horse’s breathing difficulties under control no matter what you do? Or maybe you’ve got some questions about the best way to reduce dust levels in your horses’ environment. Leave a comment below and we will get back to you!
Kate Chalmers is a qualified veterinary nurse who has specialized in horse
care for the vast majority of her career. She has been around horses since
she was a child, starting out riding ponies and helping out at the local
stables before going on to college to study Horse Care & Management. She
has backed and trained many horses during her lifetime and competed in
various equestrian sports at different levels.
After Kate qualified as a veterinary nurse, she provided nursing care to the
patients of a large equine veterinary hospital for many years. She then went
on to teach horse care and veterinary nursing at one of the top colleges in
the country. This has led to an in-depth knowledge of the care needs of
horses and their various medical ailments, as well as a life-long passion for
educating horse owners on how to provide the best possible care for their
Kate Chalmers BSc (Hons) CVN, Dip AVN (Equine) Dip HE CVN REVN RVN A1