Heaves in Horses: Symptoms and Treatment

Horses, majestic creatures known for their strength and grace, can sometimes face health challenges. One such condition is Heaves in Horses, also known as recurrent airway obstruction (RAO).

This respiratory ailment can be distressing for both the horse and its owner, but with proper understanding and management, horses can lead fulfilling lives even with this condition.

HeavesChronic horse respiratory ailment
SymptomsCoughing, nasal discharge, difficulty breathing
TreatmentMedication, environmental control
PrognosisManageable with proper care
This condensed table gives a quick overview of heaves in horses, its symptoms, treatment, and prognosis

What are heaves in horses?

Heaves, or recurrent airway obstruction (RAO), is a chronic and potentially debilitating respiratory condition that primarily affects horses.

It is often compared to asthma in humans due to its similarity in symptoms and causes.

Heaves typically results from the inflammation and narrowing of the airways within a horse’s lungs, making it challenging for them to breathe comfortably.

Why is it important to understand heaves?

Understanding heaves is crucial for horse owners, trainers, and riders because early detection and management can significantly improve a horse’s quality of life.

Ignoring the signs of heaves can lead to worsening symptoms and decreased performance, potentially affecting the horse’s overall well-being.

Causes of Heaves in Horses

Heaves can have various triggers, and understanding these causes is essential for preventing and managing the condition effectively.

Allergens as triggers

One of the primary causes of heaves is exposure to allergens, such as dust, mold, and pollen, commonly found in stable environments. Horses with a hypersensitive immune system are more prone to developing heaves when exposed to these irritants.

Environmental factors

Poor stable ventilation and inadequate management of a horse’s living conditions can contribute to the development of heaves. Overcrowded stables, inadequate ventilation, and dusty bedding are common culprits.

Genetic predisposition

Some horses may have a genetic predisposition to heaves, making them more susceptible to the condition even in the absence of severe allergen exposure.

Statistic Table:

YearNumber of Reported Heaves Cases in Horses

Note: Statistics are based on reported cases and may vary.

Recognizing Heaves Symptoms

Recognizing the symptoms of heaves is vital for early intervention and effective treatment.

Labored breathing

Horses with heaves often exhibit labored breathing, characterized by rapid, shallow breaths, and increased respiratory effort, especially during physical activity.

Coughing fits

Frequent coughing fits are another common symptom of heaves. Horses may cough persistently, especially when exposed to allergens or during exercise.

Nasal discharge

Clear or mucous-like nasal discharge can be present in horses with heaves, indicating irritation and inflammation in the respiratory tract.

Reduced performance

Heaves can significantly impact a horse’s performance. They may become lethargic, experience a decrease in stamina, and struggle with physical exertion.

Diagnosing Heaves

Proper diagnosis is essential to confirm heaves and rule out other respiratory conditions.

Veterinary evaluation

If you suspect your horse has heaves, consult a veterinarian experienced in equine respiratory issues. They will conduct a thorough physical examination and may recommend additional tests.

Pulmonary function tests

To confirm heaves, your vet may perform pulmonary function tests, such as bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL) or pulmonary function testing, to assess lung function and inflammation levels.

Statistics on Equine Respiratory Issues

Type of Respiratory IssuePrevalence (%)
Heaves14% – 20%
Recurrent Airway Obstruction (RAO)10% – 15%
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)12% – 18%

Treatment Options

Effective treatment is crucial for managing heaves and improving your horse’s quality of life.

Environmental management

Minimizing allergen exposure is key to managing heaves. Ensure your horse’s living environment is clean, well-ventilated, and free from dust and mold.


Veterinarians may prescribe medications like bronchodilators and corticosteroids to alleviate inflammation and open the airways, providing relief from heaves symptoms.

Nutritional adjustments

Feed your horse a high-quality, low-dust diet to reduce the risk of allergen exposure through food. Consult your veterinarian for dietary recommendations.

Preventing Heaves

Preventing heaves is essential for maintaining your horse’s respiratory health.

Proper stable management

Maintain a clean and well-ventilated stable with regular cleaning and bedding changes. This reduces allergen exposure and minimizes the risk of heaves development.

Allergen control

Implement allergen control measures, such as using dust-free bedding, providing clean hay, and using equine-friendly air purifiers in the stable.

Routine veterinary care

Schedule regular check-ups with your veterinarian to monitor your horse’s respiratory health and address any potential issues early.

Living with a Heaves-Affected Horse

Providing care and support for a horse with heaves is essential for their long-term well-being.

Care and support

Offer your horse a stress-free environment, plenty of rest, and a balanced diet. Follow your veterinarian’s recommendations for medication and management.

Long-term outlook

While heaves can be managed, it is essential to acknowledge that it is a lifelong condition. With proper care and attention, many horses with heaves can continue to lead fulfilling lives.


In conclusion, heaves in horses, or recurrent airway obstruction (RAO), is a challenging respiratory condition that demands attention and care from horse owners and equestrians.

Understanding the causes, recognizing the symptoms, seeking timely veterinary care, and implementing appropriate management strategies can significantly improve a heaves-affected horse’s quality of life.

Remember that prevention and early intervention are key to managing heaves effectively. By providing a clean and allergen-free environment, following veterinary advice, and offering support and care, you can ensure your horse continues to thrive despite this condition.

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Can heaves be cured completely?

While heaves cannot be completely cured, diligent management can significantly improve a horse’s quality of life.

Are certain horse breeds more prone to heaves?

Yes, certain breeds, such as draft horses and ponies, may be genetically predisposed to developing heaves.

Can horses with heaves still engage in light exercise?

Yes, with proper management, many heaves-affected horses can engage in light to moderate exercise.

Should a horse with heaves be kept outdoors or indoors?

Providing a well-ventilated outdoor space is generally beneficial for horses with heaves, but consult your vet for specific recommendations based on your horse’s condition.

What is the best treatment for horses with heaves?

Environmental management, including optimal stable ventilation and low-dust bedding, is key. Medications like bronchodilators and corticosteroids may be prescribed.

What medication is used for heaves?

Common medications include bronchodilators (e.g., clenbuterol) to ease airway constriction and corticosteroids (e.g., prednisolone) to reduce inflammation.

What is the most common cause of heaves in horses?

Prolonged exposure to dusty or moldy environments, often exacerbated by poor stable ventilation, dusty bedding, and low-quality forage.

What is the best horse feed for heaves?

Low-dust or steamed hay and maintaining proper hydration through increased water intake are recommended for horses with heaves.

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