Recurrent airway obstruction (RAO), aka heaves, is an allergic and inflammatory lung disease in horses. It’s similar to human asthma. Many people may not think of heaves as being all that dangerous, but my first barrel racing horse, Dee, died due to complications from heaves. It was an awful experience I’ll never forget. I now know that heaves is sometimes preventable and often manageable and I would do things a lot differently today.
Heaves seems to be more common in stabled horses, where inhalation of dust particles which contain allergens, mold, or endotoxins is more likely. Researchers also now believe there is a genetic component to heaves, allowing some horses to develop the disease more easily.
When a horse that is predisposed to heaves breathes in dust particles, it triggers bronchospasm (narrowing of airways). The walls of the horse’s airway become inflamed, mucous develops, and the horse has difficulty breathing. Each episode of heaves leads to more thickening of airway walls, making it more difficult for the horse to cope.
Some symptoms of mild heaves in horses include:
- exercise-related coughing
- coughing while eating or while barn is swept
- reduced exercise tolerance
If mild heaves is not properly managed, it can lead to more severe symptoms, such as:
- respiratory distress
- exercise intolerance
- ‘heave’ lines
- weight loss
The good news is that mild heaves can be managed so it doesn’t became severe. The key is avoiding dust particles that can trigger bouts of heaves. Keeping the horse in a pasture is best, but if that’s not possible, make sure that stabled horses with heaves are kept in a barn that is well-ventilated and as dust-free as possible. Changing to a stall bedding such as chopped paper or cardboard will most likely be necessary. You will want to remove the horse from the barn when you are bringing in loads of hay or sweeping the floors as well.
The diet of a horse with heaves will need to be altered as well. Feeding a pelleted feed (soaked, if possible), soaked beet pulp, or whole grains is better than rolled grains, which can be dusty. If possible, replace hay with soaked hay cubes or pellets. If that’s not an option, soak the hay before feeding. It’s important not to let horses with heaves eat from a round bale (this was our mistake with Dee) because they will bury their head in the bale and dust-inhalation will be inevitable.
Traditional treatments for heaves include corticosteroids and bronchodilators (for acute attacks), but there are some alternative and natural treatments for heaves as well. Some supplements you may want to look into for a horse with heaves include:
Some other treatments for heaves include:
- Vicks Vapo Rub (applied below nostrils or in humidifier)
- Cough remedies such as Equitussin, Wind Aid , and Air Power.
For more related information–see an article I wrote a couple of years ago that goes into greater detail on management and alternative treatments for horses with heaves.
If you suspect heaves in your horse, always see your vet first. Heaves is irreversible, but it can be managed so the horse can live a comfortable (and often useful) life.