Avoiding Respiratory Problems in the Barn

By Wendy Harless Mollat, DVM, DACVIM

Inflammatory airway disease (IAD) and recurrent airway obstruction (RAO), often called “heaves” or “COPD,” are common causes of poor performance, increased respiratory effort and coughing in horses. 


Some research estimates that up to 80% of stabled horses suffer from lower airway inflammation. Even very good quality hay and well-managed barns have exceedingly high levels of allergens, endotoxin, dust and mold present, which can trigger inflammation in the lower airways of susceptible horses. 

Long-term control of lower airway inflammation greatly depends upon successful environmental mitigation to reduce the concentration of small particulate matter that incites inflammation. 

Here are our top recommendations for avoiding respiratory problems in your barn:

  1. Maximize grass turn-out.
  2. Store hay in an area remote from where horses are stabled. Hay lofts over stalls significantly decrease air quality in a barn.
  3. Maximize ventilation within the barn by opening stall windows and barn aisle doors.
  4. Turn horses out when cleaning stalls. Wet dirt aisles prior to raking, and don't use a leaf blower inside the barn.
  5. Straw bedding should be avoided. Preferred bedding materials include peat moss, compost, wood pellets, wetted-down wood shavings and sand.
  6. Keep adjacent arenas wetted down to reduce dust when horses are ridden.
  7. Clean stalls frequently and thoroughly to keep ammonia odors to a minimum.
  8. Use a hay steamer to reduce dust and mold in hay.

If you suspect your horse has inflammatory airway disease, contact your veterinarian to discuss the available diagnostic and therapeutic options.

Contact Pilchuck Veterinary Hospital for comprehensive equine care and 24/7 emergency services:  360.568.3111

Article added 8.28.14