Horse Virus (EHV-1) Outbreak Calls For Defensive Horse Keeping

By Chris, Five Star Ranch Senior Staff Writer

Like many in the horse world I’ve monitored the spread of the EHV-1 virus with a sick feeling in my stomach. While the EHV virus has history in the horse world, this particular strain was new, more deadly, and highly contagious.

Sick horse with IV in neck

May 2011: This latest outbreak of equine herpesvirus-1 (EHV-1) began at the National Cutting Horse Association Western National Championships in Utah that ran from 29 April to 8 May 2011. Horses attending the show were unknowingly exposed to an infected animal and spread the disease to other states and stablemates. This meant that the nearly 500 or so horses at the show could become carriers and expose other horses to the virus before they even knew they had been exposed.

Once the virus was confirmed and the news was out, horse people and health officials took measures to contain the number of exposed horses. At the time of this writing on 21 May 2011, it was estimated that around 1000 horses had been exposed – double the number that were even at the cutting horse show. The virus had spread to nine western states and Canada. Colorado and California had the most cases.

Containing Exposure

In an effort to restrict further spreading, numerous horse shows and events were cancelled or postponed. The states of Colorado and Wyoming added travel restrictions. Colorado was extremely serious about the restrictions and added that in addition to the usual coggins and health certificate, someone wanting to bring a horse into the state had to go through their vet to request a permit from the state before you could bring your horse to the state.

Dealing with the Virus

The frightening part of this outbreak is that the virus can kill and can accomplish that quickly. A horse can go from not showing symptoms to full blast neurological symptoms in the course of a day. To a horse owner that is a terrifying scenario, hence the concern is justified. It is always better to err on caution than to lose a horse you love because you didn’t take the threat seriously.

There is currently no vaccine for the disease. The only treatment is supportive – to treat the symptoms. Professional horse trainer Al Dunning described his day to day fight with the EHV-1 virus when three of his horses fell sick with the virus upon returning from the Utah show.

Isolate to Reduce the Spread

If your horse has been exposed to an infected horse contact your vet and isolate the exposed horse from any other horses for at least 14-21 days. Isolating the horse will eliminate the nose to nose contact and other horse to horse contact that helps transfer the virus.

Exposed horses should have their temperatures taken twice daily as a fever is the first sign of infection. Infected horses will have a fever of 102 degrees or higher. The normal horse runs a temperature of around 100.5 degrees. The incubation period for the virus varies, but 4-7 days is common however the timing can be as small as 2 days and as much as nearly two weeks.

Defensive Horse Keeping Ideas

The EHV-1 outbreak is scary but lets take the lessons learned from this event to rethink our horse keeping practices. While many of these can be relaxed when an outbreak isn’t in full swing, all of these are good practices anytime you have a facility where animals are coming and going on a regular basis and being exposed to other animals.

1. No Sharing of Equipment – In addition to isolating the exposed animal and monitoring it for fever, practice defensive horse keeping like not sharing equipment between horses. Sharing tack, pads, and grooming equipment means contaminated equipment is being used on multiple horses. It’s been estimated that the virus can live on brushes and tack for hours to days so have separate equipment for each animal or wash and disinfect equipment between use if you have to share equipment.

2. Use a disinfectant. A simple way to disinfect equipment is to first clean the item of any dirt and then dip the equipment in a solution of 5 tablespoons bleach to 1 gallon of water.

3. Remove modes of transferring the virus. Change clothes, boots, and either wash your hands or wear disposable gloves if you have to go between suspected animals and other animals. Carry hand sanitizer and use it frequently.

4. Don’t share water buckets, hay bags, or grain buckets. Communal water troughs and buckets can spread the virus.

5. Don’t let your horse graze where a suspected infected horse has grazed. Nose shedding can remain in the grass and infect your animal.

6. Avoid shared fences and gates. Disinfect shared gates if you need to share them to get around.

7. Keep your horse home for the next month. Think hard before you venture out your front gate, but if you do decide to go to a show or event, don’t touch other horses or even come too close to other horses.

8. Disinfect your trailer if it came into contact with an exposed animal. This is a royal pain in the you know what, but if you didn’t do this and your horse got sick you’d never forgive yourself. Remove all organic matter, hay, sawdust, etc and spray interior of trailer with disinfectant. You’ll love the spring cleaning at the very least.

Not Just a Cutting Horse Problem

The outbreak manifested itself at a cutting horse show in Utah, but the virus is highly contagious and can affect any horse of any discipline and breed. Horses from the show traveled across the country and came in contact with other horses, thus the exposure went past just the horses at the cutting horse show.

Reducing the number of horse coming in contact with each other will help restrict the spread of this highly contagious virus. That is why canceling a show and not attending a horse gathering is important right now. Hopefully the outbreak will be contained in a few weeks. I know for me, I’m staying put in my own pasture. There will be time to travel and have fun with my horsey friends next month.