What is heaves, and what can I do about it?

Heaves (aka Recurrent Airway Obstruction or RAO) in horses is similar to asthma in humans.  In a nutshell, heaves makes it hard for your horse to breathe.  It's a chronic disease, which often worsens over time.  Early intervention is key!


A horse with heaves will have an allergic reaction in the lungs when allergens (dust, pollen, ammonia, stray and hay dust, mold spores, etc) are inhaled.  The lungs react by swelling and secreting mucus.  This makes pockets of trapped air that are hard to exhale.   Heaves can create thickened airways over time, which also can increase the chance of infections as the airways can’t clear viruses and bacteria as well.  


Pay attention to your horse's respiratory system, there's a lot his nose and breathing can tell you. 


If you even suspect heaves, intervene early and involve your Veterinarian right away.  This is a lifelong disease that will need expert management in order to provide comfort for your horse.  


A horse with heaves will often:

  • Cough (especially during exercise and when dust is prevalent).  A cough with fever is more indicative of an infection, and I know everyone takes TPR often!
  • Have difficulty exercising
  • Be a “hard keeper” 
  • Have increased abdominal efforts in an attempt to breathe


What can you do in your horse’s day to day management to help your horse?  Plenty.



High quality food! You may want to soak or steam his hay. 


  • Wet his hay and grains.  (This is a good idea anyway, as it makes things easy to digest and adds water to help hydrate your horse.  Soaking his hay is easy!)
  • Reduce or eliminate hay from his diet.  Hay is a huge source of dust, you may need to switch from wetting it to a pelleted hay or chopped forage in advanced cases.  (As always, work with your Veterinarian)
  • Location, location, location!  If your horse must live in a stall, can he have the end stall?  This is usually the best ventilated stall in the barn. 
  • Use low dust bedding.  Straw may not be the best bet, as mold spores are often present.  A low dust wood pellet or shaving may be best.  
  • Minimize dust in his area.  Lots of cleaning when he’s not in his stall.  This goes for cleaning his stall, too.  Remove your horse when his stall (and his neighbors) are being cleaned, when the barn aisle is being swept, and any other high dust times.  This article has tips on managing dust.  
  • Feed him higher.  Install a chest high feeder for his hay and grains so his nose is away from dusty bedding and/or ammonia smell.   Speaking of ammonia - it's a dangerous by product of urine that is harmful to lungs.  Use Sweet PDZ under bedding to remove ammonia.  



How have you helped a horse with heaves?