Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD, also known as “Heaves” or Recurrent Airway Obstruction) is a common condition affecting horses, ponies and donkeys of most breeds and ages, and occurs mainly in the winter.
It is an allergic disease of the lung, causing the small airways to constrict (get smaller in diameter) making it harder for the horse to breathe. As a result, the horse may breathe faster or deeper than usual, and it may cough. Many cases are very mild, and the signs may only be noticeable when the horse is exercised, but some cases can be very severe, causing permanent damage to the lungs (known as broken wind).
There are many substances that a horse can be allergic to, the most common being the fungal spores found on hay or straw, hence why COPD is usually seen when horses are stabled in the winter. Dusty stables, barns and arenas, or even dusty shavings, can also be implicated.
Generally, diagnosis of COPD can be made based upon examination of the horse and the signs reported by the owner. It is advised that the horse be “scoped” and a “lungwash” be collected, which involves passing an endoscope into the windpipe via the nose and collecting a sample of the fluid for testing to confirm the diagnosis. This may also be necessary if a persistent secondary infection of the lungs is suspected.
The most important part of treatment is to minimize the dust levels to which
the horse is exposed. If it is possible for the horse to be turned out all year round, with a field shelter if necessary, this is usually the most effective solution.
Otherwise, dust in the stable can be reduced by feeding good quality haylage or vacuum-packed hay, or good quality soaked hay (about half an hour of soaking is generally recommended, but some horses need less than this). Hard feed can be dampened with a little water prior to feeding.
Rubber matting can provide a dust-free alternative to bedding. Shredded paper and BedMax are virtually dust-free. Shavings are usually less dusty than straw. If straw is used, the better the quality, the less dust is likely to be present.
A clean, cobweb-free stable or barn with good ventilation is important.
Bronchodilators (such as Ventipulman) may be prescribed to widen the airways and assist breathing.
If the condition is severe or unresponsive to other treatments, it may be necessary for the horse to have a course of corticosteroid tablets or injections.
Inhalers are now used and are very safe for long-term use.
There is also a summer form of COPD, which can be more difficult to treat, as horses are thought to be allergic to airborne pollens in this case, which are very difficult to avoid. This is known as Summer Pasture Associated Pulmonary Disease. Both forms of the disease are now sometimes referred to as Recurrent Airway Obstruction (RAO).
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The advice given in any of our web pages cannot be used as the basis for a diagnosis or choice of treatment.
Clyde Vet Group advises that you should always consult a veterinary surgeon about any queries with animals under your care.