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Utah’s horse world – Equine illnesses, vaccinations and advice

Suspect disease? Isolation is often recommended to prevent spread and infection.
Suspect disease? Isolation is often recommended to prevent spread and infection.
photo by Julie Pierson (with Sarah Robertson and 'Indy')

With springtime upon us, Utah horse owners are more frequently heading to shows and events, races and trail rides. Along with all the activity and fun, equestrians have the typical annual concerns about communicable diseases and the paths to contagion.

While all responsible horse owners regularly vaccinate, it’s helpful to know the symptoms of some of the most worrisome conditions and learn a little more about how germs are transferred. Reasonable knowledge can prevent panic and prepare everyone to maintain their horses’ health to the best of their ability.

A statewide outbreak of EHV-1 had many folks in Utah’s horse world on high alert a few years ago. Fortunately, we have no current reported cases. The equine herpes virus can impact your horse’s respiratory, nervous and reproductive symptoms. One of the most common symptoms is paralysis in the horse, most notably in its hind legs. This leads to a lack of coordination; some equines afflicted with EHV-1 have been found sitting like a dog, unable to lift back to a normal standing position.

EHV-1 is best prevented by not sharing tack, by thoroughly cleaning and disinfecting the horse trailer (if you transport horses other than your own), regularly providing proper feed, plenty of fresh clean water and adequate shelter to minimize stress, and separating new horses for a minimum of 30 days. Of course you’d want to contact your vet immediately if presented with any suspicious symptoms.

As with Strangles, EHV-1 can be carried by a human being to horses on apparel, skin,hair and footwear. If you've been in contact with horses that you suspect of this illness, be sure that you go home and shower, change your clothes and disinfect your boots or shoes before visiting other horses.

West Nile Virus.
Fortunately West Nile virus is relatively uncommon, but because of its very devastating effects once contracted, we’re all vigilant about keeping up with annual vaccines. This virus is not transmittable from horse to horse or from horses to humans. It is transmitted only through the bite of an infected mosquito. Common symptoms include weakness in the hind limbs, listlessness, stumbling and head shaking.

As an infected animal is not contagious, there is no reason to isolate him from the herd. It is a treatable condition in most horses and your veterinarian will be able to advise you of the proper treatment plan.

Strangles is highly contagious and infectious, affecting the horses’ lymph nodes. Easily spread, schooling horses, youngsters under the age of 5, as well as elderly animals are most at risk. It’s spread not only by direct horse to horse contact but also via contaminated food or water and can be transferred via equipment, tack and by people's hands, clothing and footwear (by way of soil tracked from one locale to another), to other horses. Horses can also catch the disease by inhalation or parasitic infestation; the bacteria can survive for long periods in certain environmental conditions.

Strangles isn’t usually life threatening, unless it goes untreated or turns into a condition called (sorry for the language) "bastard strangles". This condition can prove fatal. Untreated lymph nodes may burst and drain; severe cases have enlarged to the point where they can crush a horse's windpipe. Symptoms included loss of appetite, lethargy and depression, swelling in the throat and nasal discharge, along with difficulty swallowing. A cough and high temperature (up to 104F) are also common. Abscessed lymph nodes may discharge pus in the throat, under the jaw. After the illness has abated, three (3) negative strangles cultures must be performed by your veterinarian before a horse is considered no longer contagious.

Your vet will immediately isolate any suspected cases. It’s important to then keep the sick horse in a warm, dry setting and provide soft food (soaked pellets, for example). Hot packs will aid in draining, if the abscesses are not so severe that surgery is required. Most horses show improvement relatively soon but should be kept away from other horses for two months, as they are likely to remain infectious. A vaccine is available. Consult your vet; it is rarely recommended due to the likelihood of developing symptoms post-vaccination.

If ever you do suspect an illness, it’s always recommended to contact your vet and follow their plans for treatment and recovery. With the help of conscientious owners who keep potentially exposed horses and humans away from the trail or events, along with the reputable facilities that maintain a 'stay away' rule for those animals and their owners, we can quickly contain and manage any outbreaks.

Wishing everyone happy, healthy springtime rides!

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