Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease


Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease

COPD is a condition on the severe end of the Equine Asthma Spectrum, where it is essentially
interchangeable with the terms Heaves and Recurrent Airway Obstruction.

Horses who suffer COPD for a long time can develop “heave lines” – a line of abdominal muscle
built up from the effort to exhale. Left untreated, COPD can cause remodelling of the smooth
muscles lining the respiratory tract. These muscles can thicken and lose their elasticity. It can
cause a vicious cycle of hyperreactivity to inhaled particles that are virtually everywhere in the
horse’s environment.

Recurrent Airway Obstruction, heaves and Severe Equine Asthma are other names for COPD.

Common Conditions

By any name, equine respiratory problems are shockingly common. 

Over 80% of active sport horses are estimated to have some degree of respiratory challenge. After lameness, veterinarians typically look to respiratory function as the most common reason for decreased performance.

A 2018 study of over 700 horses determined that 88% had some level of respiratory disease.

Common Cause



Respirable dust is the main cause of all equine respiratory conditions. 


A complex mixture of organic matter, these microscopic particles can include bacteria, endotoxins, mites, mold and fungal spores. Small enough to slip past our horses’ defense mechanisms, these bits can activate inflammatory and allergic responses.


Exposure to these particles increases with domesticated life and indoor stabling. Hay and bedding, in particular, put large quantities of dust directly in our horse’s breathing zone. 

Clear Symptoms


Symptoms for COPD are crystal clear. Laboured breathing, chronic cough, wheezing, flarednostrils and exercise intolerance.


Symptoms for conditions on the mild and moderate end of the Equine Asthma Spectrum can be subtle: an occasional cough, nasal discharge, slow respiratory recovery and, sometimes, otherwise unexplained decreases in performance and exercise tolerance.


Remember that COPD exists at the severe end of the Equine Asthma Spectrum. The best way to prevent COPD is to prevent, or catch and treat, the potential precursors to this disease: Mild and Moderate Inflammatory Airway Disease.


COPD symptoms usually require medical approaches: systematic or inhaled corticosteroids to control inflammation and excess mucus, and bronchodilators to open the airways.

Neither are suitable for long term use. Corticosteroids have side effects and bronchodilators open the airways to more respirable particles that triggered the problem in the first place.

Reducing dust in our horses’ environment is veterinarians’ top advice for preventing and/or managing RAO.

  • Ensure ventilation

  • Feed clean hay

  • Use low-dust bedding

  • Don’t use leaf-blowers around horses

  • Clean stalls when horses are outside

  • Give maximum outdoor time

Haygain High Temperature Hay Steaming

  • Reduces up to 99% of the respirable irritants commonly found in forage – even forage of good nutrient content.
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The Forager Slow Feeder

  • Allowing the horse to eat with its head in a naturally lowered position enables natural drainage of respirable particles from the upper airway.
  • ontains clean, steamed hay to prevent contamination.
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ComfortStall Sealed Orthopedic Flooring

  • Built-in cushion reduces the need for bedding to only that required to absorb urine.

  • Single-piece top cover seals to the stall wall. This prevents seepage and accumulation of urine and the related ammonia odor that is another respiratory irritant.
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