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Managing Respiratory Diseases in Horses: Importance of Proper Nutrition

Understanding and Managing Heaves in Horses

Whether you are a seasoned horse owner or new to the equestrian world, you have likely heard of heaves. This respiratory condition can be a significant burden on horses, making simple tasks like breathing and eating a challenge.

In this article, we will provide you with the information you need to recognize the signs of heaves, understand its causes, and manage it effectively.

Definition of Heaves

Heaves, also known as recurrent airway obstruction (RAO), is a respiratory condition that occurs when a horse’s airways become obstructed due to an allergic reaction to various allergens. These irritants often include molds, dust, and pollen in the horse’s environment.

Heaves develops over time as the horse is repeatedly exposed to allergens.

Causes of Heaves

Heaves is commonly seen in horses that are kept in confinement or stabled for extended periods. The dust and mold in these environments can irritate a horse’s airways, leading to heaves.

Other factors that can contribute to heaves include inadequate ventilation, poor hygiene, and lack of turnout.

Symptoms and Progression of Heaves

The earliest symptoms of heaves often go unnoticed. As the horse continues to be exposed to the allergens, the symptoms begin to worsen.

The horse may start to cough, have difficulty breathing, and use their abdominal muscles to breathe instead of their chest. This causes a visible heaving line to form from the withers to the flank area.

As the condition worsens, emphysema can develop, causing irreversible damage to the horse’s lungs.

Treatment and Management of Heaves

The best way to manage heaves is by reducing the horse’s exposure to allergens. This often requires changes in the horse’s environment and feeding practices.

Working with a veterinarian is essential to developing a comprehensive management plan.

Feeding Tips for Horses with Heaves

Reducing the dust and mold in a horse’s diet is crucial to managing heaves. By providing low-dust forage and bedding, owners can reduce their horse’s exposure to allergens.

Here are some feeding tips for horses with heaves:

  • Wet Hay: Soaking hay before feeding can reduce dust and mold, making it easier for the horse to breathe. Soaking hay for a minimum of 30 minutes can reduce the dust by up to 93%.
  • Steamed Hay: Steaming hay is an effective way to reduce dust and mold. This process sterilizes the hay while retaining its nutritional value.
  • Forage Alternatives: Forage alternatives like hay cubes, beet pulp, and chopped hay have lower dust levels than traditional hay.
  • Grains and Supplements: Adding grains and supplements to the horse’s diet can provide essential nutrients like Omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants, which can support lung health.
  • Avoid Round Bales: Round bales often contain a lot of mold and dust, making them a poor choice for horses with heaves.
  • Bedding Options: Choosing low-dust bedding options like sawdust or pine shavings can reduce the horse’s exposure to allergens.

Understanding heaves and implementing proper management strategies can significantly improve a horse’s quality of life. By regularly consulting with your veterinarian and taking steps to reduce your horse’s exposure to allergens, you can help your horse breathe easier and live a healthier life.

Importance of Proper Nutrition for Horses with Respiratory Diseases

Respiratory diseases pose significant problems and expenses for horse owners. The cost of veterinary care, medication, and missed training and competition can quickly add up.

One of the keys to managing respiratory diseases in horses is providing proper nutrition. In this article, we will explore the importance of proper nutrition for horses with respiratory diseases, including allergies, infections, and parasites.

Cost of Respiratory Diseases for Horse Owners

Respiratory diseases can have a considerable impact on horse owners, including both financial and emotional costs. It can be challenging to treat respiratory diseases, and in some cases, may result in permanent lung damage.

Owners may have to pay for expensive veterinary care, medication, and reduced performance. It is essential for horse owners to take the necessary steps to prevent respiratory diseases and provide proper nutrition to minimize the impact on their horses.

Allergies, Infections, and Parasites

Horses can experience respiratory conditions caused by allergies to pollens and molds, infections like pneumonia, and parasites like lungworms. The symptoms of these conditions can range from mild to severe, but all respiratory diseases share common features like difficulty in breathing, wheezing, coughing, or a nasal discharge.

Horses who are experiencing respiratory issues may also experience decreased appetite, weight loss, and lethargy.

Similarities Between Heaves and Asthma

Horses with respiratory diseases such as heaves or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) have many similarities to humans with asthma. Both conditions are chronic diseases that cause inflammation in the airways, making it difficult for the horses to breathe.

This inflammation results from an allergic response to irritants such as dust, molds, pollen, and grass. Horses with heaves require careful management to prevent exacerbations of their symptoms and may require long-term medication.

Keeping Horses Outside

Keeping horses with respiratory issues outside is often safer than keeping them in a barn. Outside, they are exposed to naturally occurring fresh air, which is less likely to contain the types of irritants that cause respiratory problems.

However, if a horse has a hay allergy or other environmental irritants outside, it may be necessary to keep them indoors and provide superior, breathable air.

Importance of Hay Selection

Hay is an essential part of a horse’s diet, but the wrong kind of hay can exacerbate respiratory issues. Round bales, for example, often have low-quality, inferior grass that produces more dust and molds than square bales.

Horses with respiratory diseases are prone to react to mold and dust, which can worsen their symptoms. Horse owners should make hay selection a priority, choosing high-quality, low-dust hay that doesn’t contain harmful ingredients.

Feeding Practices for Horses with Heaves

Feeding horses with respiratory issues requires careful planning to manage their symptoms effectively. Here are some feeding practices horse owners can implement to minimize respiratory problems:

  • Wet Hay: Soaking hay before feeding reduces dust and makes it easier for horses to digest the hay.
  • Soaking for at least 30 minutes can cut dust levels by up to 93%.
  • Steamed Hay: Many horse owners find that steaming hay reduces respiratory problems.
  • The process involves using a portable hay steamer to sterilize hay with hot water vapor.
  • Steamed hay is beneficial because it can reduce the need for corticosteroid medications.
  • Forage Alternatives: Offering high-fiber forage alternatives like haylage, pellets, and chopped hay is an excellent way to reduce respiratory issues.
  • These options are low on dust and pre-moistened, making them easy to digest, and maintain the microbial ecosystem in the horse’s gut.
  • However, it is essential to avoid feeding a large amount of alfalfa, which can increase the risk of botulism.
  • Grains and Supplements: Adding grains and supplements to the horse’s diet can provide essential nutrients, and help maintain weight and support lung health.
  • Olive or vegetable oils often contain Omega-3 fatty acids, while vitamin C and E supplements provide antioxidants to reduce inflammation and support healing.
  • Avoiding Round Bales: When it comes to hay, round bales are often a bad choice for horses with respiratory disease.
  • Round bales produce a substantial amount of dust and become airborne irritants that can exacerbate a respiratory condition.
  • Bedding Options: Stall bedding can create significant respiratory tract irritation, and understanding proper bedding protocol is important.
  • Horse owners should avoid materials such as dusty wood shavings and straw that can create ammonia.
  • Instead, use bedding pellets, hemp, peat moss, or shredded newspaper with regular cleaning and ventilation to reduce the potential of respiratory irritation.

In conclusion, providing proper nutrition for horses with respiratory disease is fundamental in managing the symptoms and minimizing their impact. Horse owners should be mindful of their feeding practices, making sure to offer low-dust hay, feed alternatives, grains, and supplements, with clean and healthy bedding.

By working closely with a veterinarian and taking preventative measures, horse owners can keep their horses breathing easy and comfortable. Proper nutrition is crucial in managing horses with respiratory diseases as it can significantly improve their quality of life.

Allergies, infections, and parasites are common causes of respiratory diseases that can lead to significant financial and emotional burdens for horse owners. Many respiratory diseases resemble human asthma, such as heaves, and require careful management to prevent exacerbations.

It is essential to select hay with care and to offer low-dust alternatives, wet or steamed hay, grains, and supplements, with clean and healthy bedding. Working with a veterinarian and making necessary changes in feeding practices can help manage respiratory diseases and promote healthy living for horses.


Q: Can respiratory diseases impact horse performance?

A: Yes, respiratory diseases can impact horse performance by decreasing appetite, causing weight loss, lethargy, and difficulty in breathing.

Q: Can keeping horses outside reduce respiratory diseases?

A: It is safer to keep horses with respiratory disease outside as fresh air exposure is beneficial. However, horses with hay allergies could experience reactions to environmental irritants outside.

Q: Which alternative forages are better for horses with respiratory diseases?

A: Haylage, pellets, and chopped hay are ideal for reducing respiratory issues because they are pre-moistened and low in dust.

Q: How can I reduce respiratory tract irritation caused by stall bedding?

A: Using bedding pellets, hemp, peat moss, or shredded newspaper with regular cleaning and ventilation can help reduce respiratory tract irritation caused by stall bedding.

Q: Is it safe to feed horses with respiratory diseases alfalfa?

A: No, feeding large amounts of alfalfa to a horse can increase the risk of botulism, and it’s not suitable for horses with respiratory diseases.

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