Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in horses

What is COPD?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a lung disease that resembles human asthma. The condition is also known as heaves, recurrent airway obstruction, broken wind, emphysema, chronic bronchitis or small airway disease.

COPD is common in countries with cold climates, where horses are kept in barns for prolonged periods of time and where hay is often mouldy. Horses that suffer from the condition are usually allergic to mould particles in hay dust, although other allergens such as pollens, chemicals, microbes and substances found in foods, medications and the environment can also trigger the condition.

COPD is most often seen in mature horses (usually seven and older) that are stabled during the winter months. It is rarely apparent in warm, dry climates where horses are kept outside all year. COPD often causes the premature end to a horse’s athletic career.

What are the signs of COPD in horses?

Horses with COPD will often “heave” to expel air out of the lungs towards the end of exhaling. A wheezing sound at the end of exhalation may also be detected. Coughing, weight loss, lack of energy and intolerance towards exercise are also signs of COPD.

Sometimes, a horse with COPD may have a mucopurulent nasal discharge (composed of mucus and inflammatory cells), particularly following exercise. The abdominal muscles of horses with COPD may enlarge and form “heave lines.”

Is my horse at risk for COPD?

Horses that are more at risk for COPD spend their winters stabled, and feed on hay. Minute dust and fungal spores, particularly Micropolyspora faeni and Aspergillus fumigatus, enter the airways when the horse eats, causing irritation to the lungs and inflammation and narrowing of the airways.

All breeds are susceptible to the condition.

Preventing COPD

With sound management practices, the risk for contracting COPD can be markedly reduced. The most significant management factors involve the horse’s environment. You will need to remove the dust/moulds responsible for your horse’s allergy. Here are ways to minimize the risk.

  • Turn the horse out as often as possible. (A few horses are allergic to substances in the pasture, so watch your horse carefully for improvement.)
  • Reduce dust in the stable by removing bedding such as straw or shavings. Instead, use shredded paper or rubber matting.
  • Keep hay away from your horse as much as possible, and ensure any hay in the vicinity is kept dry.
  • Provide a feed that is low in dust such as pellets and alfalfa cubes. Grass silage (haylage) is no longer recommended due to the risk of botulism.
  • Remove your horse out of the stable when you are mucking out, to reduce exposure to dust.
  • Ensure that there is good, draught free ventilation through the stable. Keep half doors open at all times and ensure that there are large windows which can be kept open. It is better to keep your horse warm by giving him more rugs, than by closing off his ventilation.
  • Stick with your management routine to minimize exposure to allergens. Few horse owners stick with a plan for the long-term, making recurrence of symptoms likely.
  • Consider using lifestyle supplements that help to curb the production of histamines in the tissues. Bioflavonoids (plant-derived protective substances), including those derived from Camellia sinensis and Vitis vinifera, have been reported in numerous studies to inhibit the release of histamines. The antioxidant vitamins A, C, and E can also be helpful for horses suffering from COPD to help combat free radical damage produced during the stress response and to promote tissue repair.

Treatment for COPD in horses

Lifestyle changes (see above) are the first line of defence against COPD. If these are not effective, or your horse is suffering acutely, your veterinarian may recommend treatment with drugs. These include corticosteroids with anti-inflammatory properties and bronchodilators that open the airways.

Corticosteroids (prednisone, dexamethasone, triamcinolone)

These help decrease smooth muscle contraction and reduce mucus production. They suppress inflammation, providing your horse with fairly quick relief. Corticosteroids can be administered by mouth, by injection, or by inhalation. When administered by mouth or by injection, therapy usually begins with a high dose and, as is reduced to a maintenance level as the horse improves. Inhaled steroids provide a high dose within the airways and minimal systemic side effects but a special mask is necessary for administration.

While corticosteroids are helpful in the short-term, those with potent anti-inflammatory effects are also more likely to cause problems, particularly heart problems, immune suppression and decreased ability to heal, when used for long-term therapy. Corticosteroids may be given in oral form or through an inhaler.

Bronchodilators (clenbuterol, pirbuterol, albuterol)

These drugs relax the smooth muscle of the airways. They may be safely combined with anti-inflammatory drugs to treat severely affected horses. Bronchodilators may be given orally, by injection, or by inhalation. While oral administration is the most convenient method, inhalation therapy is the most effective treatment for relief of airway obstruction. As with anti-inflammatory therapy, administration of bronchodilators by inhalation requires the use of a special mask.


Natural ways to help your horse with COPD


Recovery®EQ with Nutricol®, is an elite proprietary performance and wellness supplement for horses that enhances quality of life. Recovery®EQ improves healing by increasing circulation of nutrients to affected cells and extracellular structures, halting tissue damage and modulating inflammation. It may be usedin combination with prescribed medications. Always ask the veterinarian prior to adding a new natural lifestyle supplement to a horse’s feeding program.

Review in the prestigious Horse Journal in October and December 2003

Recovery®EQ rated as “Best Performer Overall” as a pain-relieving supplement for joint pain, back pain and tendonitis – comparison of natural joint care supplements.

Review in the prestigious Horse Journal inJune 2006:

“You get what you pay for” – Horse Journal quote about Recovery®EQ used as a performance enhancing supplement – comparison of natural performance enhancing supplements

For more information on helping your horse stay healthy, please see Tips for a Healthier Horse