Signs & Symptoms of Congestive Heart Failure in a Horse

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Congestive heart failure is a serious illness in horses, and usually appears in horses that previously had heart problems. Veterinarians treat congestive heart failure in horses with drugs and rest, but it can be expensive, and the horse will have to remain on drugs for the rest of its life. Once a horse is diagnosed with congestive heart failure, the prognosis is poor, and owners often decide euthanasia is best. A number of signs suggest equine congestive heart failure, and a veterinarian should examine horses displaying these signs as soon as possible.

Poor Circulation

Poor circulation is an early sign of congestive heart failure in horses, often caused by a back flow of blood into the heart. Poor circulation brings cold legs, which can cause horses to fall asleep or go numb.


Horses that have congestive heart failure show a disinterest in exercise and an increase in rest. While lethargy can also be a sign of less serious illnesses, such as thyroid disease, it should nevertheless be investigated.


Swelling caused by heart disease is an early symptom of equine congestive heart failure. Swelling generally occurs in the horse's legs, stomach and chest. The swelling is oedema--an accumulation of fluid that gathers underneath the horse's skin. The oedema is caused by vasculitis, an inflammation of the horse's blood vessels. Infection or an autoimmune disease also can cause oedema.

Laboured Breathing

A horse with congestive heart failure can have laboured breathing, even if it has not recently exercised. Laboured breathing is a late sign of congestive heart failure, and you should have it checked immediately.


Another late symptom of equine congestive heart failure is froth coming from the horse's nostrils. This is a result of the horse's struggle to breathe. This symptom usually occurs just before death.

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