Non-Infectious Respiratory Disease

Heaves, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) & Inflammatory Airway Disease (IAD)


Major Clinical Signs of Heaves, COPD, and IAD:

  • Coughing during exercise or even at rest.
  • Increased respiratory rate and effort. Nostril flare and abdominal effort when breathing indicate increased respiratory effort.  Wheezes may even be heard.
  • Exercise Intolerance.
  • Overall normal appetite and demeanor.

Understanding the Disease:

  • “Non-infectious” disease: A disease that is not contagious and not caused by a bacteria or virus, and often precipitated by allergies.
  • Inflammation is the major component of non-infectious respiratory disease.  Inflammation occurs when a horse is exposed to a respiratory allergen or irritant.  When we reduce and control the inflammation in the airway, we can usually control the disease and clinical signs.
    • Allergen: Anything that causes an allergy. The most common allergens are dust, mold, pollen, and fungi.  Unfortunately, these are found in bedding, hay, grain, and barn environments.
      • Feeding dusty or mold hay is very likely to cause allergic airway signs.
    • Irritant: Airborne particles that irritate the respiratory tract. Ammonia gas is very irritating to the respiratory tract and commonly found in heavily soiled, poorly ventilated stalls.
  • Heaves, COPD and IAD do not develop overnight. These diseases develop due to repeated exposure to allergens and irritants and are progressive in nature.
  • The key to successfully owning a horse with non-infectious respiratory disease is GOOD DAILY MANAGEMENT, and the use of medications when needed.

Vital Management Tips to Reduce Clinical Signs and Progression of Disease: 

  • Reduce allergens and irritants that are in the horse’s environment.
    • SOAK ALL HAY fed to the horse even if the hay does not appear dusty or moldy. Avoid feeding musty or moldy hay to the horse at all costs.  Closely inspect round bale hay for dust.
    • Soak grain/feed especially if pelleted or dusty. Consider using a textured feed (sweet feed) as these are usually less dusty due to molasses content.
    • Keep the horse outside as much as possible. If you do use a barn, make sure ventilation is adequate.  Consider stalling the horse in an area of the barn close to an outside door that can be kept open.  Use a water hose to dampen the horse’s area to reduce dust from bedding.
    • Do not ride your horse in an indoor arena unless it has been wet down adequately.
  • Contact us when you notice your horse having a “flare-up.” Coughing is the most common sign of a respiratory problem.  It is important to start medically treating a horse experiencing respiratory inflammation sooner rather than later, before the inflammation becomes severe.  But remember, good management is key to prevention.
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