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Home:Equine Diseases:Heaves Disease

Equine Diseases - Heaves


Equine Heaves is a respiratory disease also known by other names such as "chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or copd", "broken wind", "hay-straw allergy" emphysema or recurrent airway obstruction (RAO).

Equine Heaves is a disease of the smaller airways (bronchioles and alveoli) in the lungs. It is caused by allergens that become aerosolised in hay dust. When a horse suffering from Equine Heaves inhales these allergens, it has an allergic reaction which results in the inflammation and constriction of the airways.

Equine Heaves can cause severe respiratory distress and is generally a permanent condition. Many horses live and work normally despite being affected by Equine Heaves so long as their owners take a responsible attitude and attend diligently to the management of the condition by removing the allergens responsible for the condition.

Horses do not get Equine Heaves overnight and it is usually the result of years or months of exposure to offending spores or sometimes after a viral infection.

Equine Heaves can vary in its severity from showing virtually no signs at all to cases where the horse shows signs of distress as it fights for breath.

Equine Heaves cannot be cured but it can be managed by keeping your horse away from things that cause the problem.

Equine Heaves affects primarily mature horses and can put an end to their athletic careers.


  • reduced ability to exercise
  • difficulty in breathing, particularly exhaling, when the abdominal muscles have to play a much greater role in respiration than usual – this looks like “heaving”
  • wheezing
  • coughing
  • nasal discharge
  • increased respiratory rate


The main cause of Equine Heaves is an "allergy" or hypersensitivity to mould spores found in the horse's environment. These allergens can come from a variety of sources such as dusty bedding, dusty hay, chemicals given off by wood shavings in bedding, ammonia from urine and faeces in bedding, pollen in Summer, viruses, mineral imbalance, pollutants e.g. fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides, car fumes.


You should take your horse to vet as soon as it shows any signs of respiratory problems. The sooner Equine Heaves is diagnosed the less damage it can do. Your vet may prescribe drugs to help suppress the coughing and wheezing. He might also prescribe anti-inflammatory drugs such as corticosteroids which can be administered by mouth, injection or by inhalation with the use of a special mask.

An essential part of the treatment is to make sure your horse avoids contact with all potential allergens. This can be achieved by keeping him/her permanently out of doors and feed minimum-dust substitutes for hay, such as "Horsehage" or complete feed nuts. The best way to eliminate dust from hay is to totally submerge the hay in water for at least twenty minutes.

If your horse has to be stabled, the use of a low-dust bedding such as shredded paper, cardboard, wood shavings or rubber matting on the floor will help in the treatment of the Equine Heaves

If your horse has a persistent cough it should not be doing any work at all as work will put the lungs under even more stress and could result in permanent damage.

Take your horse out of the stable before mucking out or brushing-up.

Make sure the stable is well ventilated even in the winter months.

Stable Management incorporating the foregoing will give your horse the best chance of relief from Equine Heaves.