Asthma in Horses

Updated November 21, 2016

Any horse can develop airway inflammation, which can develop into a serious disease over time. Both SPAOPD (Summer Pasture Associated Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) and COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) are two types of equine asthma. It is often called "Equine Asthma" because it is similar to asthma in people.


Physical injuries and ailments like colic are easily recognisable, however, signs of respiratory disease can be very subtle, even impossible to detect in the beginning. Unfortunately, respiratory disorders can have a more severe impact on the horse's well-being and performance than physical injuries.


Symptoms of COPD and SPAOPD include chronic cough, difficulty breathing, wheezing, heaving, strained abdominal muscles, reduced performance and flared nostrils.

Disease Progression

In the beginning, large numbers of white blood cells build up causing airway congestion from inflammation, cells, and mucus. Ultimately, the air sacs and airway walls become so thick and scarred that they lose their flexibility, unable to expand and contract normally. Next, the bronchial muscles spasm. As the airway continues to shrink from further blockage, the lungs lose elasticity, volume, and function. It becomes so difficult for the horse to get air in and out of his lungs that he must use his abdominal muscles to force air out during exhalation.


Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is also called heaves due to the laboured breathing that occurs as the disease progresses. COPD accounts for half of all lung diseases seen in performance horses. COPD is most likely to develop in colder climates, and in horses 6 or older that are stabled in the winter. Dusty stalls, straw bedding and hay are primary sources of various allergens. When a horse is breathing this dust for hours at a time, problems can arise.


This disease occurs in horses on grass in the summer. The symptoms are similar to COPD. The condition has a rapid onset and the symptoms are often severe and triggered by an allergic reaction to summer pollens and moulds.

Management & Treatment

Keep the barn and arenas well ventilated: open doors, half-doors, and windows as much as possible. In cold weather, it is better to blanket the horses than to shut up sources of fresh air. Feed dust-free forage and pelleted feeds. Eliminate exercising in cold weather. Conventional medical treatment generally includes corticosteroids and bronchodilators to reduce muscular spasms in the lungs. Due to side effects, drugs may not be suitable for long-term management. Fortunately, there are holistic treatments, which are safe. Essential fatty acids possess antioxidants and healing properties. Herbs and remedies, such as funtumia elastica are also safe treatment options.

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