Horror of Heaves for your Horse

Written by Dr. Kelly Hudspeth, DVM

Original Publish Date August 2015

What is Heaves in horses? The medical term is COPD or Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. What does it mean to horse owners in simple terms? Is there anything that can be done?

One of the first things you may notice is a little cough at the beginning of exercise. This can progress to intermittent coughing off and on a few times during the day without exercise. As time passes- usually years – the cough progresses. The worst case being a constant cough daily.

At first a nasal discharge may be absent, but as the years go by a clear discharge that becomes cloudy is present occasionally. Eventually in latter stages the discharge is almost constant, thick, and cloudy.

In the beginning only slight changes in breathing occur usually following exercise. As time progresses, the horse must use abdominal muscles at the end of exhalation. The use of these muscles will cause a “heave line” to develop as the condition gets worse.hh1

Weight loss is one of the last factors that becomes apparent and is usually in the later stages. There is really no weight loss in the early stages and many times as the condition progresses, owners simply increase the food to hold the weight and assume conditioning or aging is the cause. In the late stage when signs and symptoms are severe, weight loss is obvious. Increasing food does not compensate any longer.hh2

Your veterinarian will need a history of all the signs listed above to stage your horse’s condition if it is not in the late stage. The veterinarian will also take into consideration the breaths per minute and the lung sounds. As COPD progresses, breathing rate will increase and lung sounds will become more prevalent. In severe cases, a stethoscope may not even be needed to hear wheezes.

Let us imagine that your horse has been diagnosed with Heaves. Since it is caused by an allergen (simply something your horse is allergic to), the simplest thing would be to remove the allergen. Easier said than done. Many times the allergen is to grasses that are seasonal or related to hay dust that is in the hay being fed. When I attended veterinary school over twenty years ago, we were told if the horse was being stalled, turn it out. Also if the horse was out, stall it. The thought behind this was to change the environment. I have seen this work at times and have absolutely no effect at other times. Dampening food like hay and oats can also be helpful. Again sometimes it helps and sometimes it does not.

Your veterinarian has steroids that are useful in controlling or helping the inflammation but steroids can have side effects. Bronchodilators can also be helpful. The bottom line is that we do not as veterinarians have a cure or quick fix for this condition. That is the horror of heaves. It is very frustrating to deal with a condition that has no cure. Hopefully further study will provide what we need in the future.

There are some things that can be explored in alternative medicine. Herbal remedies and acupuncture have claims for some success with no side effects. Allergies are dealt with in a total different way in Chinese medicine. There are a number of websites to view for herbal supplements. Acupressure is something that the owner can actually try for themselves at home. If your veterinarian is not available to guide you, Equine Acupressure: A Working Manual (Paperback) by Nancy A. Zidonis is available for under fifty dollars on Amazon.com. I would encourage all horse owners to explore acupressure as a tool to use at home.

Also visit the Healthy Bodies website at http://healthybodiesshop.com/. Patsy Bullard is very helpful to help choose supplements that are tailored to your individual animal. I order supplements for my own horses from this website.

With time and new tools, hopefully the horror of heaves will be eliminated. As with asthma in people new developments and more information become available each day.



Dentinger, Taryn. “Acupuncture for Equine Allergies.” Journal of Integrative Veterinary Care. Spring 2013 http://ivcjournal.com/acupuncture-for-equine-allergies/ 7/20/2015


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