Heaves In Horses

Heaves in horses, also known as recurrent airway obstruction, is a common respiratory condition that can significantly impact a horse’s health and performance. In this comprehensive article, we will delve into the intricacies of heaves, exploring its causes, symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, prevention, and prognosis. From understanding the potential allergens and environmental factors that can trigger heaves to learning about the various management changes, medications, and alternative therapies that can help alleviate the symptoms, we will cover it all. Whether you are a horse owner, breeder, or simply passionate about equine health, this article aims to provide valuable insights into managing and caring for horses affected by heaves. So, let’s embark on this informative journey to gain a deeper understanding of this respiratory condition and discover the best practices for addressing it effectively.

Key Takeaways:

  • Heaves in horses is a chronic respiratory condition caused by allergies, environmental factors, and genetics.
  • Symptoms of heaves include difficulty breathing, coughing, nasal discharge, and exercise intolerance.
  • Diagnosis and treatment of heaves may involve management changes, medications, and alternative therapies.

What is Heaves in Horses?

Heaves in horses, also known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), is a respiratory condition that affects the lower airways, causing difficulty in breathing and reduced lung function.

This condition is commonly seen in older horses and is often associated with dust and mold exposure in their environment. It leads to chronic inflammation of the airways, resulting in coughing, nasal discharge, and exercise intolerance. One of the distinguishing features of heaves is the characteristic ‘heave line’ that appears along the abdominal muscles due to the increased effort of breathing. Affected horses may also exhibit a barrel-shaped appearance due to the enlargement of the chest in an attempt to facilitate breathing.

What are the Causes of Heaves in Horses?

The causes of heaves in horses can be attributed to various factors, including allergies, environmental triggers, and genetic predispositions that contribute to the development and exacerbation of the condition.

Allergies play a significant role in triggering heaves in horses. Sensitivity to airborne particles such as dust, mold, and pollen can lead to respiratory distress, causing the characteristic symptoms of heaves.

Environmental factors, such as poor air quality and inadequate ventilation in stables, can also contribute to the onset and progression of heaves. Dusty or moldy bedding, feed, and forage can act as irritants, worsening the respiratory symptoms in affected horses.

Genetic influences may make certain horses more susceptible to developing heaves. Some breeds are more prone to respiratory conditions, and individual genetic predispositions can impact the severity and persistence of the disease.


Allergies play a significant role in the development of heaves in horses, triggering respiratory distress and initiating an immune response that leads to airway inflammation and breathing difficulties.

Common equine allergens, such as dust, pollen, and mold spores, can provoke an exaggerated immune response in susceptible individuals, leading to the release of inflammatory mediators like histamine. These mediators cause the airways to constrict, mucus production to increase, and inflammation to develop, resulting in respiratory distress and heaves.

This chronic condition can significantly impact a horse’s performance and quality of life, necessitating careful management of environmental factors and potential allergen exposure. Equine allergies are a complex issue with a wide range of triggers that can greatly influence respiratory health and overall well-being.

Environmental Factors

Environmental factors such as exposure to dust, mold, and poor stable management practices can exacerbate heaves in horses, leading to increased respiratory distress and compromised lung function.

These environmental triggers are significant concerns in equine respiratory health, as they can trigger inflammatory responses in the airways, leading to bronchoconstriction and mucus production. Dust and mold particles, when inhaled, can irritate the respiratory system, causing discomfort and potential long-term damage for the horses.

Additionally, poor stable management practices, such as inadequate ventilation and high ammonia levels, can further contribute to respiratory issues in equines. Therefore, it is essential for horse owners and stable managers to implement proper environmental management strategies to minimize the impact of these factors on equine respiratory health.


Genetic factors can contribute to the susceptibility of horses to develop heaves, with certain breeds exhibiting a hereditary predisposition to the condition, highlighting the role of genetic influences in respiratory health.

Regarding heaves in horses, the influence of genetics cannot be overlooked. Hereditary predispositions play a major role in making some equine breeds more vulnerable to respiratory conditions. For instance, certain breeds such as Thoroughbreds and Arabians are known to have a genetic predisposition to heaves. The inheritance patterns of these conditions have been a subject of interest in equine genetics. Understanding the genetic markers associated with heaves can shed light on potential breeding strategies to mitigate the impact of these conditions on equine respiratory health.

What are the Symptoms of Heaves in Horses?

What are the Symptoms of Heaves in Horses? - Heaves In Horses

Credits: Horselife.Org – Jeremy Flores

The symptoms of heaves in horses encompass various indicators such as difficulty breathing, persistent coughing, nasal discharge, and exercise intolerance, reflecting the respiratory and functional challenges associated with the condition.

Difficulty breathing, or dyspnea, is a hallmark symptom of heaves in horses. This may manifest as rapid or labored breathing, with increased effort to draw air into the lungs. The cough in horses with heaves often presents as dry and recurrent, especially after exercise or exposure to dust or allergens. Nasal discharge, typically clear and watery, may be observed in affected horses. Exercise intolerance is another prominent sign, with affected horses showing reduced stamina, reluctance to work, and fatigue during physical exertion.

Difficulty Breathing

Difficulty breathing is a hallmark symptom of heaves in horses, characterized by respiratory distress, labored breathing, and visible signs of respiratory discomfort during rest and physical exertion.

As the condition progresses, affected horses may exhibit flared nostrils, heaving flanks, and an increased respiratory rate. The audible sounds of wheezing or coughing, particularly after exercise or in dusty environments, are also commonly observed. This chronic respiratory ailment, also known as recurrent airway obstruction (RAO), significantly impairs equine comfort and performance, affecting not only their ability to exercise but also their overall well-being, including appetite and weight management.


Chronic coughing is a prevalent symptom of heaves in horses, indicating ongoing respiratory irritation, airway inflammation, and the presence of mucus build-up within the respiratory tract.

This persistent coughing, often worsened by dust, pollen, and exercise-induced stress, significantly affects the overall respiratory health of affected horses. Not only does it compromise their airway function, but it also triggers airway constriction and impairs their ability to clear respiratory secretions effectively.

Without proper treatment and management, chronic coughing can lead to long-term damage to the respiratory tract, increasing the risk of secondary infections and airway remodeling. Addressing the underlying causes and providing supportive care are critical for minimizing the impact of heaves on equine respiratory health.

Nasal Discharge

Nasal discharge is a common symptom of heaves in horses, often indicative of respiratory secretions, mucus accumulation, and underlying airway inflammation associated with the condition.

This discharge can vary in color and consistency, with a true indication of the severity of the horse’s condition. The mucus in the discharge may contain inflammatory cells, such as neutrophils, which are a sign of ongoing airway inflammation. It is crucial to closely monitor the nature of the nasal discharge, as it can provide valuable insights into the respiratory health of the horse and the effectiveness of any treatment being administered.

Exercise Intolerance

Exercise intolerance is a notable symptom of heaves in horses, resulting in reduced performance, respiratory limitations, and compromised functional capacity during physical exertion and athletic activities.

Equine exercise capacity is significantly impacted by heaves, leading to decreased endurance and stamina. The respiratory limitations caused by heaves can hinder a horse’s ability to maintain consistent breathing patterns, resulting in fatigue and reduced oxygen delivery to the muscles. Consequently, the compromised functional capacity during physical exertion can lead to reduced speed, agility, and overall performance in equine sports and activities.

How is Heaves in Horses Diagnosed?

The diagnosis of heaves in horses involves thorough veterinary examination, respiratory assessments, and pulmonary function testing to evaluate airway function and confirm the presence of the condition.

Upon initial presentation of clinical signs such as coughing, labored breathing, and nasal discharge, a veterinary evaluation is paramount. The veterinarian will conduct a comprehensive physical examination, focusing on the respiratory system, to assess the severity and impact of the condition. Following this, respiratory assessments may include auscultation of lung sounds, measurement of respiratory rate, and observation of breathing pattern to gauge the extent of respiratory distress.

Furthermore, pulmonary function testing plays a key role in diagnosing heaves. This may involve techniques such as plethysmography to measure lung volumes, bronchoalveolar lavage for cell analysis, and endoscopy to visualize the airways and gather samples for further assessment. These specialized tests provide valuable insights into the equine respiratory system, aiding in the accurate diagnosis and formulation of an effective treatment plan.

What is the Treatment for Heaves in Horses?

What is the Treatment for Heaves in Horses? - Heaves In Horses

Credits: Horselife.Org – Jeffrey Clark

The treatment for heaves in horses encompasses various approaches, including management changes, medications, and alternative therapies aimed at alleviating respiratory distress and improving lung function.

Management adjustments play a crucial role in minimizing the impact of heaves on horses. This may involve reducing dust exposure by providing adequate ventilation in stables and using dust-free bedding. Additionally, avoiding exposure to allergens such as pollens and molds can significantly benefit horses with heaves.

Pharmaceutical interventions like bronchodilators and corticosteroids are commonly employed to manage acute respiratory distress. Complementary therapies such as herbal supplements and acupuncture are also becoming popular options, offering a holistic approach to support equine respiratory health.

Management Changes

Implementing management changes, such as environmental control, improved ventilation, and strategic forage management, can significantly contribute to mitigating respiratory distress and improving the well-being of horses with heaves.

The environmental control involves creating a low-dust environment by using dust-free bedding, storing hay separately from the barn, and ensuring adequate ventilation. Ventilation strategies, like increasing air circulation and providing access to fresh air, help reduce airborne particles and irritants. Dietary considerations play a vital role in managing heaves, with options such as soaking hay to decrease dust and offering high-quality, low-dust forage. These management changes are crucial in alleviating the symptoms and enhancing the respiratory health of horses with heaves.


Medications such as bronchodilators, corticosteroids, and anti-inflammatory drugs play a crucial role in managing heaves in horses, targeting airway function, reducing inflammation, and alleviating respiratory symptoms.

These medications act by dilating the airways, facilitating easier breathing for the affected horses.

Bronchodilators such as albuterol or clenbuterol help to relax the smooth muscles of the airways, allowing improved airflow. On the other hand, corticosteroids like prednisolone or dexamethasone reduce airway inflammation, thereby minimizing mucus production and bronchoconstriction.

Anti-inflammatory agents like flunixin meglumine or phenylbutazone effectively reduce the inflammatory response within the airways, contributing to the alleviation of respiratory distress in horses with heaves.

Alternative Therapies

Alternative therapies, including acupuncture, herbal remedies, and specialized respiratory support, offer supplementary approaches to managing heaves in horses, promoting respiratory health and overall well-being.

Acupuncture has been found to help improve respiratory function by promoting better circulation and reducing inflammation. Herbal remedies, such as licorice root and elecampane, can support lung health and reduce mucus production, aiding in relieving symptoms of heaves. Specialized respiratory support, such as nebulization therapy and bronchodilator medications, can provide direct relief for horses experiencing respiratory distress.

Can Heaves in Horses be Prevented?

While the prevention of heaves in horses may not be entirely guaranteed, proactive environmental management, attention to respiratory health, and allergen control measures can contribute to minimizing the risk and severity of the condition.

Proper stable ventilation and dust control play a crucial role in reducing the airborne irritants that can trigger heaves. Implementing regular stall cleaning to minimize dust accumulation and using dust-free bedding such as straw or wood shavings can significantly mitigate the risk of respiratory distress.

Providing ample turnout time in well-maintained pastures or paddocks can offer horses cleaner air and reduce exposure to mold and pollen. Utilizing high-quality forage and low-dust feeds, along with soaking hay to diminish airborne particles, can further aid in heaves prevention.

What is the Prognosis for Horses with Heaves?

What is the Prognosis for Horses with Heaves? - Heaves In Horses

Credits: Horselife.Org – Roy White

The prognosis for horses with heaves involves long-term respiratory management and vigilance, as the condition can be managed effectively with appropriate care, lifestyle adjustments, and veterinary support.

Equine heaves, also known as recurrent airway obstruction, requires a comprehensive approach to ensure the well-being of affected horses.

Long-term respiratory management entails diligent monitoring of symptoms, implementation of appropriate medication, and careful environmental control to minimize respiratory irritants.

Lifestyle accommodations play a crucial role in supporting horses with heaves. Providing low-dust bedding, turnout in well-ventilated areas, and minimizing exposure to mold and allergens can significantly alleviate respiratory distress. Maintaining a proper exercise routine and a balanced diet tailored to support respiratory function are vital components of prognostic considerations.

Veterinary interventions, such as bronchodilator use, corticosteroid therapy, and environmental modification advice, can greatly impact the prognosis of horses with heaves. Regular veterinary evaluations and collaboration with equine healthcare professionals are essential for the effective long-term management of this respiratory condition.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are heaves in horses?

Heaves in horses, also known as recurrent airway obstruction, is a chronic respiratory disease that affects the lungs and airways of horses. It is similar to asthma in humans and can cause difficulty breathing and coughing.

What are the symptoms of heaves in horses?

The most common symptoms of heaves in horses include difficulty breathing, a persistent cough, increased respiratory rate, and wheezing. Horses may also exhibit decreased exercise tolerance and weight loss.

How is heaves in horses diagnosed?

A veterinarian will typically diagnose heaves based on clinical signs, physical examination, and a history of recurrent respiratory issues. They may also perform a bronchoalveolar lavage or a lung function test to confirm the diagnosis.

What causes heaves in horses?

Heaves is typically caused by exposure to allergens, such as dust, mold, and pollen, in the horse’s environment. These allergens can trigger an inflammatory response in the lungs, leading to the symptoms of heaves.

Can heaves in horses be treated?

While there is no cure for heaves, it can be managed with proper treatment and management. This may include environmental changes, such as reducing exposure to allergens, and medication to control inflammation and improve breathing.

Can heaves in horses be prevented?

While heaves cannot be prevented, proper management and care can help reduce the likelihood of a horse developing the condition. This includes providing a clean, dust-free environment and avoiding exposure to known allergens.

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