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Important Information on Preventing and Treating Heaves

Horses have long had respiratory diseases. Back in the 1800s horses were said to be winded or to have broken wind when they had respiratory difficulties. They were called “pipers” by horse dealers because of their loud breathing which was a result of struggling to move air through their lungs.

These horses were likely suffering from a common condition that is linked with decreased performance in horses today known as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease of COPD. This condition is commonly called heaves and has a strong allergic component.

The manner in which the horse breathes is responsible for the name. Horses with heaves can usually inhale normally but have trouble exhaling. These horses may actually contract their abdominal or flank muscles in extreme cases when they try to force the air out of their lungs. Along the

rib margin through the flank the muscles will thicken if the condition is chronic causing what is called “heaves line” to be seen.

Bacterial, parasitic and viral infections can all be responsible for this inflammatory airway disease in horses. Allergies might be a factor including the common allergies to grains, grasses, tree pollens, flowers or airborne pollutants and chemicals. Changes in the passageways can result if repeated inflammation occurs and this is often not reversible.

There is a thickening of the muscular and fibrous tissues that line the large airways of the lungs in horses with heaves. Excessive mucus is often produced by affected horses. The size of the airway is a result of this combination which can make it hard for the horse to breathe.

The problem is already severe once the horse has difficulty breathing so this is why prevention and early diagnosis is very important. However, it can be difficult to obtain early diagnosis. Samples of fluid and mucus from the large airways of the lungs can be tested and analyzed with a bronchio-alveolar lavage in suspected horses.

The large lung airways are bronchi while the smaller airways are alveoli. A tube is placed into the horse’s trachea or windpipe during the test and then passed into the deeper airways of the lung. A sterile saline solution is then flushed through the tube and into the horse’s lungs. The solution is then collected by being drawn back out of the airways. The sample is then analyzed for both bacteria and cell types that can indicate the start of an allergic reaction.

While there is no specific number of cells that can show the start of heaves the test can help point out potential problems. Human methods of testing have been tried for horses with heaves for diagnosis and evaluation since heaves closely resembles emphysema in humans. For example, the force produced by breathing is tested with respirometry. This is when the humans blow into a special device that measure the force of their exhalation. Horses require a special device that covers their nostrils to record their breathing efforts since they are nose breathers.

Horses can be identified by score significantly lower that normal on these tests and in this manner some early cases of heaves can be diagnosed. This is especially so when the respirometry measurements are combined with the bronchio-alveolar lavage cellular results.

Avoiding allergies and environmental toxins that might cause heaves is the best method of prevention. Progress has been made by researchers in the manner of learning what to avoid and how to manage horses with the problem better. Throughout a normal day the dust around a horse’s nose is often three times higher than the dust around factories according to a recent Michigan State University test.

The biggest culprits are hay and poor-quality processed grains. It is especially risky if you have hay that has been poorly cured or old hay. It is best that you open a bale of hay and shake out a flake or two first. If you find mold or dust or have several of the flakes sticking together then it may cause your horse respiratory problems.

On occasion horses can tolerate such irritants but susceptible horses will develop heaves if they face continual exposure. It is still a long way off before we will have the ability to detect which horses will develop heaves even though testing is starting to become more helpful. Prevention and treatment should remain the focus of emphasis.

One obvious help is by using good-quality hay and grain. Always consider where the dust is coming from. If possible you should avoid storing hay over the stalls. You can help reduce some dust by wetting the hay prior to feeding. Heavey horses should be fed from the ground instead of a wall feeder. Wall feeders keep the dust and hay near a horse’s nose while hay on the ground allows the horses to avoid the dust and get the added benefit of gravity which keeps the majority of the dust particles out of their lungs.

Feeding with hay cubes, pellets and complete feeds can help reduce the dust for the horses that already have airway diseases. It is also important to pay attention to air circulation in barns, you should make sure they are kept open and that the dust is reduced to a minimum. Another option to consider is replacing dusty shavings with shredded paper bedding. The best management you can use is to keep horses outside in the fresh air as much as possible.

There are two phases to approach in the treatment of heaves. Drugs called bronchodilators are usually used for immediate relief in horses with heaves. These products allow the smooth muscles in the lung airways to relax. Almost immediately this makes breathing easier for horses although it doesn’t have any curative effect on the process of the disease. Recently the FDA gave approval to use clenbuterol as a potent bronchodilator for horses. To animals suffering from COPD this drug can provide substantial benefits. However, there are strict rules set up by the FDA that are used for its sale and use.

For horses there is a new face mask that is used to allow them to breathe in a mist of drugs from an inhaler. Despite the fact that the mask look uncomfortable and not easily tolerable by horses it actually provides them immediate relief and horses will quickly learn to accept the mask and the blast of medication from the inhaler.

However, these drugs are not used for long-term use. Rather corticosteroids are used for maintenance treatment. It will take a few days to a week or so for the steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs of NSAIDs to take effect and the results can vary between the horses.

Allergic diseases are highly individualistic which means that each horse needs to have the exact type of drug, dosage, method of administration and dose frequency worked out for them.

In certain cases homeopathic remedies can be helpful. Knowing just what your horse is allergic to can be helpful since the disease is allergic in nature. There are new test available to determine a horses allergies.

While specific offensive can not always be eliminated from the horses world, knowing what to avoid can help a lot. Good management to have a reduction of dust, mold and other environmental irritants added to this can help slow heaves or prevent it from happening completely.

Read the next horse health tips article on Headshaking.
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