Wellness Wednesday - Advanced Treatments for Heaves at The Sanctuary Equine Sports Therapy & Rehabilitation Center


Ocala, FL – Heaves (Formerly also known as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease or COPD, and currently also known as Recurrent Airway Obstruction or RAO), is one of the most common ailments of horses during the warm, humid spring and summer months. This disease affects horses older than six years who are allergic to certain particles that they inhale - generally particles from hay. The allergic reaction that horses with heaves experience causes the airways in their lung tissue to contract and become obstructed, which induces symptoms of having difficulty breathing. These symptoms include coughing, an increased respiratory rate, wheezing, the inability to exert themselves other than in light exercise, and nostril flaring.

As the disease prolongs, the horses must work so hard to pull air into their lungs and push it back out again that they use their abdominal muscles to the point of visibly enlarging them and forming a “heave line.” Without the proper treatment, heaves can eventually lead to damaging the lungs so intensely that they can no longer function.

Brenda McDuffee, General Manager of The Sanctuary Equine Sports Therapy & Rehabilitation Center, explains “‘Heaves’ (or heavie horses) can be very hard to treat if the disease is chronic, and it can't be ‘cured.’ It can be maintained to a degree depending on when you start to treat the horse and if you are able to remove the causes. Depending on when symptoms start, there are several things you can do to help treat the problem and manage the damage to the airways.”

“The first thing you must do is eliminate the horse’s exposure to dust, molds, and allergens. That is easier said than done in many cases due to the fact that they live in barns and outside in pastures,” McDuffee continues. When the materials that the horses are allergic to are removed from their environment, their symptoms generally improve or even disappear completely. Round hay bales and straw bedding are especially common causes of heaves. “Our experience here in Florida has been that the heat in the summer compounds the problem and makes it more uncomfortable for the horses to breathe. This is probably due to a combination of more dust and molds and higher temperatures during that season,” McDuffee says.

After the materials that the horses with heaves are allergic to are removed from their environments, anti-inflammatory medicines such as corticosteroids and bronchodilators are normally administered to the equines. At The Sanctuary, much more than drug administration can be done for the diseased horses.

One treatment method that the facility provides is the Transpirator II respiratory machine, which contains EquiSilver Solution. “Our Transpirator II respiratory machine with EquiSilver Solution is a great way to improve lung function and help expel irritants and microorganisms that infect the lung and cause damage and obstruction in the airways,” McDuffee recommends. “The machine helps hydrate the entire lung, including the smallest airways. This improves the lung's ability to remove particles and mucus, thus eliminating the damage-causing dust, molds, and bacterias. The EquiSilver solution actually is anti-microbial, anti-fungal, anti-viral, and anti-bacterial which helps stop any infections that might damage lung tissue. It is even possible to add certain medications to the distilled water and EquiSilver solution in the machine to deliver medications directly to the infected airways. For a horse that is just starting to exhibit signs of heaves, regular maintenance treatments with the Transpirator II will help maintain better lung function and help improve comfort.”
The Sanctuary also offers Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy for horses with heaves. This therapy delivers oxygen to tissues that are diseased or injured. “For cases where there is ongoing damage to lungs and airways, Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy will help heal the lung tissues, reduce the inflammation, and increase the efficacy of the medications prescribed for the horse,” McDuffee explains.

She adds that “Keeping your horse in a dust free, cool environment will help improve comfort and remove the irritants that cause symptoms. At The Sanctuary, we offer air-conditioned stalls with soft rubber floors to minimize exposure to dusts and molds. This keeps the horse in cool comfort, which makes it easier to breathe.” 

“Although there is no ‘cure’ for heaves, with proper management there are many things that can be done to help prevent the onset of symptoms or help a horse remain in clinical remission if horse owners are educated on what heaves is, what to watch for, and how it progresses. This will make it less likely that the horse will suffer another bout.” Brenda McDuffee and others at The Sanctuary certainly have the ability to properly manage heaves and aid affected horses. The Sanctuary’s focus on helping horses with heaves become more comfortable, eliminating disease causes, and reducing and abolishing heaves symptoms make the facility a wonderful destination for horses with heaves.

To learn more about The Sanctuary Equine Sports Therapy & Rehabilitation Center, visit www.sanctuaryequinerehab.com.