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What do you do for a horse with asthma? Symptoms and treatments for heaves in horses

Equine asthma, commonly known by the equine community as ‘heaves’, is a lot more common than you might think and is certainly quite debilitating for horses, let alone stressful for their owners if not controlled properly. It can be quite a confusing disease, as some horses are affected in winter, and some in spring or summer. So, what really causes equine asthma, what does it look like and how can we treat it most effectively? Read on to learn the latest in equine asthma's veterinary management.

What is equine asthma?

Equine asthma is the updated terminology for describing what was previously known as inflammatory airway disease, recurrent airway obstruction (RAO) or summer pasture-associated recurrent airway obstruction (Léguillette, 2021). Equine asthma is the umbrella term that describes non-infectious inflammatory respiratory disease caused by hypersensitivity in the lungs to airborne particles such as dust, moulds and pollen (University of Saskatchewan).  
If you’re talking to your vet about your horse with equine asthma, they will usually split the condition into two categories: dust-related asthma and summer pasture-related asthma. One is caused by horses staying in dusty and mouldy stables for longer periods during the winter and the other by spring and summer pollens and dust in the field. 

What are the symptoms of equine asthma?

Equine asthma symptoms (or clinical signs) include:
  • Increased respiratory rate
  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Nasal Discharge
  • Poor performance/exercise intolerance
  • Lethargy
  • Heave lines
These clinical signs might be caused by other respiratory diseases, such as serious bacterial or viral infections. Therefore, it is really important that your horse gets a veterinary examination to make sure it isn’t something that would necessitate isolation from other horses or more immediate intensive treatment.