Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, otherwise known as COPD is a respiratory disease found in horses and is very similar to that of asthma in humans.

Susceptibility and CAUSES of COPD

• Health problems

• Allergies to mold, pollen, chemicals etc... in bedding or hay

• Dusty barn or arena

• Cold climates

• Viral respiratory diseases

Primary culprits are microorganisms found in moldy hay

Aspergillus fumigatus:

This substance grows on dead, decaying matter (poor quality hay). Thrives in high heat making decomposing hay a choice breeding ground. It forms spores which are released into the air and breathed in by the horse causing an allergic reaction.

Thermoactinomyces vulgaris and Faenia rectivirgula

This is a bacteria which produce spores that also become airborne and are then inhaled by the horse.

What happens in an onset of this ailment?

Coughing, secretion of mucus and bronchial constriction are ways The horses’ airways naturally eliminate inhaled particles that could be dangerous to the horses’ system.

In a horse with COPD this mechanism is hyper reactive, so when foreign particles are inhaled, the mechanism overreacts. Inflammation will also occur as a reaction to foreign particles.

Oxygen cannot be properly delivered to the tissues. This prevents the horse from performing normally and eventually will result in intolerance to exercise.

The horse will often cough, and make a wheezing sound and ‘heave’ to expel air, thus giving this disease the nickname “Heaves”.

Other effects included:

• Weight loss

• Lack of energy

• Nasal discharge

• Depression

• Asthma-like episodes

Symptoms of COPD

Symptoms vary from horse to horse and usually the symptoms will be more noticeable after work in an indoor arena or being inside the barn.

Mild cases show:

• Reduced performance

• Inability to tolerate being worked as much as before.

Severe cases show

• Complete intolerance to being worked

• Having ‘attacks’ of coughing, wheezing and difficulty breathing.

• Thick nasal discharge

• Depression

• Weight loss

• Loss of appetite

• lack of energy


Diagnosis should be based on:

- The medical history of the horse

- Clinical signs the horse is showing

- Allergy testing

- Monitoring the horses’ response to treatment

- Changes in the horses’ environment

- Close inspection of the horses environment

Make sure to take action before copd takes hold. Many of the cases that are found can be reversible if the measures of control are closely followed.

Some steps to ensure a healthy, allergen-free horse are:

• Turning the horse out as much as possible;

• Feeding only the highest quality hay

• Soaking the hay thoroughly at a safe distance from the horse so to not get any dust near the horse

• Substituting hay cubes in cases where a horse has an allergy to hay (it does happen, after all, a horses natural food is grass)

• Substituting the bedding in their stall for shredded paper, hardwood shavings or peat.

• Provide good ventilations for the horse at all times inside the barn

• Store any hay or bedding away from the barn

• Resting the horse until the clinical signs of COPD subside

• Removing the horse from the barn when you are mucking out the stalls to reduce the horses intake of dust;

• Keeping the horse warm if it is cold out or drafty in the barn

• Use of supplemental antihistamines and vitamins such as bioflavonoids and vitamins A, C and E which are antioxidants and will combat free radical damage that is produced during the stress response of COPD and will promote tissue repair.

• Drug treatments such as expectorants, (to help the horse to expel excess mucus)

• Anti-inflammatory drugs, to reduce inflammation in the horse's airways

• Corticosteroids such as prednisone, dexamethasone and triamcinolone (to decrease the smooth muscle contraction and reduce the over-production of mucus)Bronchodilators such as clenbuterol, pirbuterol and albuteral. (to relieve the obstruction of the airways).

If you suspect that your horse may have COPD, you should contact your veterinarian so that the proper steps and measures can be taken to diagnose the disease as quickly as possible and the proper healing therapy started.

Steps to Prevention

• Keep your horses in a clean, well ventilated, but non-drafty barn

• Turn them out as much as you can

• Provide good quality hay and feed

• If you must ride in an indoor arena make sure the arena is well ventilated

• Remove your horses from the barn when you are mucking out

• Have your horses tested for allergies so that you can nip it the bud before it becomes a problem

• Stick to a proper routine of preventative care

These simple routines and rules to follow will, in turn, ensure that your horses are healthy and happy!

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