Horse Health Care – Treating Horse COPD Or Heaves

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Horse Health Care – Treating Horse COPD Or Heaves


If you have ever seen a horse suffering from symptoms of COPD, also called heaves, then you know that the picture is not pretty. The horse can’t breathe properly, respiration is high, nostrils are flared, and then there’s the heave line, a sure sign of respiratory distress.

Although this used to be a horse health care condition that affected mostly older horses, today it has become common in younger performance horses or horses under stress. While it has always been assumed that COPD or horse heaves is caused by an allergy to hay, dust, mold, or other allergens, I recently discovered that this condition can also be simply a sign of stress.

While many people feel that heaves is a permanent condition, this case study demonstrates how the symptoms of heaves can be alleviated with nutritional support.

Reyacita: A Case Study

Reyacita is a four-year-old mustang mare I adopted about 8 months ago. She had a rattle in her chest when I brought her home, and the rattle always sounded louder when she was under stress (such as when I started her under saddle).

A few months after she came home, the rattle in her chest developed into a full-blown case of heaves, or COPD. She had difficulty breathing, and coughed deeply and constantly. She was clearly suffering and she could not eat her hay.

Since this happened in late winter, I could not put her on pasture. Instead, I took her off hay and began feeding her soaked beet pulp and a senior pelleted feed. I also offered her grass hay cubes that had been soaked.

I supplemented this diet with Xango mangosteen juice, blue-green algae, enzymes, and probiotics to help heal her lungs. Within two weeks, the coughing had stopped but the rattle in her chest always reappeared when Reyacita was stressed. A prime example is when I rode her through our small town for the first time. Although she showed no other signs of stress, when we reached an intersection that had traffic, she put her head down and rattled with each breath. As soon as we turned around and headed for home, the rattle disappeared.

The Veterinarian’s Diagnosis

When I consulted veterinarian Dr. Madalyn Ward about Reyacita’s case, she told me that I was on the right track with the mare’s diet and supplements. She asked me to find out Reyacita’s horse personality type by taking the online test at Horse Harmony. Reyacita turned out to be a Metal personality type, whose typical physical weakness is the lungs, so her bout with COPD or heaves was not surprising.

Recent Changes

Once spring arrived I was able to turn Reyacita out on pasture, although I continued to syringe the mix of mangosteen juice and other supplements into her mouth daily. Her health improved to such a point that the rattle in her chest disappeared, even when she was under stress. Everything went well until she started eating hay again this fall.

I wanted to try feeding her hay again to see whether she had truly conquered her COPD or whether she was truly allergic to hay. For the first 4-5 days, she ate the hay and showed no signs of coughing. Then one day I began training all the horses for cowboy mounted shooting. This involved firing a small revolver at a pretty good distance (about 500 yards) from the horses so they could become accustomed to the noise.

None of the horses showed much alarm, they just all moved to the far end of the pen. However, Reyacita immediately developed a deep heaving cough. The noise from the revolver stressed her enough that her physical weakness, her lungs, immediately showed the effects.

When I discussed her situation with Dr. Ward, she pointed out that when Reyacita heard the sound of the pistol, she probably immediately flipped from the parasympathetic nervous system (the one we use in normal life conditions) to the sympathetic nervous system (used when horses are in fight-or-flight mode). Once the sympathetic nervous system kicked in, Reyacita’s immune system became compromised and she started to have heaves again.

Not convinced that Reyacita’s COPD symptoms were due to a hay allergy, Dr. Ward suggested I supplement the mare with Eleviv, an herbal product that supports the adrenal system and helps restore the parasympathetic nervous system. I fed Reyacita 2 capsules of Eleviv the first day but gave her no hay. The Eleviv calmed the COPD symptoms within a few minutes, and she improved more during the course of the day. On the second day, I fed her 2 more capsules of Elviv and offered her a few flakes of hay. Reyacita was able to eat the hay without any COPD symptoms. The third day was the same.

This indicates that Reyacita’s COPD is the result of stress rather than a hay allergy. While many horses with COPD or heaves are assumed to have hay or dust allergies, this may or may not be the case. As with Reyacita, these horses may simply be under too much stress, and their weakest physical link may be their lungs, hence the COPD.

It would not surprise me to discover that many performance horses operate primarily off their sympathetic (fight-or-flight) nervous system, which depresses the immune system and prevents healing. Bringing this horse back around to the parasympathetic nervous system, as I did by giving Reyacita the adrenal-supporting Eleviv, may allow these horses to not only heal but also to feel a great deal more comfortable.

These days I give Reyacita Eleviv anytime I feel she might be under stress, such as when I haul her to a horse event or when I started her on roping training. So far, she has never shown any signs of COPD or stress when supported in this way with nutrition. It’s not for every horse, but Eleviv is definitely something that stays in my first-aid kit in my horse trailer.

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