Horse coughing is a common symptom of heaves, an inflammatory response in the respiratory tract, often triggered by an inhaled allergen.
Heaves can be compared to human asthma; however, horses with heaves will most likely not yield a diagnosis on an allergy test. Respiration becomes difficult when allergen triggers, such as pollen, dust, or mold, are inhaled causing the airways in the lung to tighten and produce excess mucus. This response causes the tissue lining in the air-passage to become inflamed and to obstruct the airways.
Symptoms of heaves include:
- Increased respiratory rate
- Cough that is soft & moist
- Exercise intolerance
- Nasal discharge
- Heave lines. Caused by a prolonged double phase of exhalation, lines can be visible on your horse’s chest and abdomen. These “heave lines” are the result of abdominal muscles making an extra effort to release air from the lungs.
Severe horse coughing and wheezing could be a sign of a serious respiratory illness called Recurrent Airway Obstruction (RAO) in horses, otherwise referred to as heaves. Formerly known as COPD, this respiratory illness may become life threatening after years of prolonged coughing. Although there is no cure for heaves in horses, steps can be taken to prevent a chronic infection and scarring, minimize symptoms and improve quality of life.
Why is my horse coughing?
Heaves is an inflammatory response that involves the mucosal lining in the respiratory tract. White blood cells, called neutrophils, excess mucus production and constricted bronchial tubes are responsible for the inflammation of the lungs. If your horse has had a prolonged cough and environmental changes have been made to give the horse access to fresh air and pasture, lung tests can be done by the vet. The neutrophil cells located in your horse’s airway are keys to assessing the disease’s severity. These cells are found in lung fluid samples, which are obtained by bronchoalveolar lavage, or BAL. During this test, fluid is sprayed into your horse’s lung through a bronchoalveolar lavage tube. The fluid is then collected for examination. Blood work can also be beneficial to rule out other causes of respiratory disease.
Treatments for Heaves
Early diagnosis is crucial, as many heaves cases are preventable. Heaves occurs in the late stages of prolonged horse coughing when the lung tissue has lost elasticity and the abdominal walls have to be used in exhalation. The buildup of muscle from the use in the exhalation process causes a heave line. Once developed, cases can range from moderate to severe. The first step in treating your horse is to limit exposure to the possible allergen triggers in their environment. This includes:
Removing Potential Food Allergens
- If possible, keep your horse in an open pasture where he can enjoy fresh air, as well as access to fresh grass
- Switch to pelleted food and/or pelleted hay, hay cubes or wafer-cut hay and soak before feeding
- Soak all hay before feeding and feed in a haynet
- Add natural supplements to feeding programs that will act as an antihistamine and boost the immune system
Removing Potential Contact Allergens
- Change your horse’s bedding daily to limit dust particles. Shredded paper, pelleted shavings or wood shavings are an excellent alternative to a straw bedding
- Keep your horse’s stall clean and well ventilated. Allow barn doors to stay open during the day and night, even in winter.
- Remove dust, cobwebs and loose feed from indoor enclosures
- Turn horses out on pasture for most of the day and night
The first treatment method to take when you notice prolonged horse coughing is to change the horse’s environmental surroundings; this is important to treat current and future occurrences. When heaves is more severe, it may also be necessary to treat your horse with prescription medications. Generally Supplements can be given before and during the onset of medications to help block allergen triggers. You may choose to discuss these options with your vet:
- A cost effective and readily available option for heaves in horses is oral feed supplements with natural ingredients. When dealing with heaves, natural remedies may offer the benefits required, but with fewer side effects. Supplements can be easily added in with any feed program and are highly palatable.
- Supplements with Tienchi, Spirulina, or DMG can have significant benefits for horses with respiratory problems. They work to improve circulation, reduce inflammation, and fortify the immune system to effectively relieve the symptoms of heaves.
Oral Anti-inflammatory Medicines
- Corticosteroids help control the side effects of an allergic reaction that causes your horse’s air-passage to become inflamed, thicken, and develop mucus.
- Bronchodilators help your horse breathe more comfortably by relaxing the muscles that affect airways. They may be given for a short time period while adjustments are made to the horse’s environment.
- A mask inhaler system, or nebulizer, has similar results to the oral anti-inflammatory medicines listed above. The main difference is that a special mask delivers the medications, such as corticosteroids and bronchodilators, directly to your horse’s lungs. This more direct method uses less concentrated forms of the drugs, which can mean reduced risk of side effects.
- These medications treat bacterial infections that adversely impact heaves.
- With the immune system lowered from excess mucus built up in the lungs, horses are more susceptible to contracting infections. An immune boosting supplement would be recommended until environmental changes can be made.
Help Your Horse Breathe Comfortably
Heaves can cause significant respiratory distress and compromise your horse’s quality of life. While it can’t be cured, environmental changes, natural remedies and any required prescription medications, can provide relief from horse coughing. We encourage you to play an active role in your horse’s health to know what signs to look for. If you see anything amiss, please contact your vet immediately, as continued issues can cause long lasting side effects.