Heaves in Horses

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.

horse nose

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
  • wheezing
  • 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:

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.




15 thoughts on “Heaves in Horses

  1. Well I seem to disagree with the dust particles, I know horse breeding farms with barns full of weeds and dust, and having horses in their breeding program for over 20 years with no heaves. I mean dust barns and hay and no heaves.
    I have found that the Rhino vaccine given during the pregnancy stage seems to trigger the onset of depleted histamine molecules, more in my book
    Natural Equine Remedies .
    Natural remedies are ester C , and Dr.Christophers Respri Free herbs as well as a natural diet.

    1. Hi Lorrie,
      I believe it’s the mold spores and other irritants within the dust particles that are thought to trigger heaves–and some horses seem to be more susceptible than others. I would definitely agree that heaves or any allergic response is linked with a lowered immune system though–and that good nutrition and herbs can definitely help in this area.

  2. I have a mini horse who was diagnosed 3 years ago with heaves. If I use magnesium, vitamins C/E and Jiaogulan, would I use them all together or can I use one or the other/how much would I give him? He is around 450 to 500lbs. I have a dirt floor with saw dust, but am putting in a thick rubber mat/ am hoping it helps cut down on his heaves. His name is Briquet. Thanks so much for any information you can give me.

  3. I also have been giving him a product with probiotics in it, but this year it doesn’t seem to be helping him. He also has Founder/ is 13 years old.

    1. Hi Rosemary,

      I am not a nutritionist or vet, but I have supplemented all of these at one time or another (except vitamin C) and wouldn’t have a problem giving them all at once. Here is an article that outlines vitamin requirements for horses: http://www.ker.com/library/advances/238.pdf

      For full size horses, 2,000 mg of j-herb & 20 grams of spirulina has been found to be helpful for respiratory issues (per Dr. Kellon), so probably half that amount would be appropriate for your little guy. Dr. Kellon has a book, Horse Journal: Guide to Equine Supplements and Nutraceuticals, that I’ve found really helpful as well.

      For the magnesium, it would really depend on how much he’s getting in his diet (would have to test your hay), but adding about three grams probably wouldn’t hurt. Magnesium is also helpful for laminitic-prone horses.

      Are you soaking his hay? This is important for dust-control.


  4. I have a 21 year old gelding who haves heaves , I think it was caused by the silt in our paddock and the dust flying through the area on real dry days plus them running and the dust was horrible. looking for now a new footing in the paddock to cut the dust.
    In the winter and spring it’s not so bad but our dry summers are dangerous to my horse now. I have slowfeeder nets, I soak his hay twice a day , with wintercoming I am wondering how my soaking his hay with be cold on the hand. here is my idea I will buy a big metal garbage can then put a heater they use to warm there buckets and put my hay bag and lets it soak.

    1. Hi Susan,

      I’m sorry to say I don’t know of any easy ways to soak hay in the cold. Luckily, I haven’t had to do this. If I did, I would probably use a heated bucket (this is what i use for water in the winter anyways). There are also hay steamers, but they are pricey. Good luck to you!

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