Thursday, May 26, 2016

Vets, Vaccines and Viruses

When I lived out West, I saw strangles ALOT. I also saw tons of sarcoids, equine warts, and other equine diseases and ailments. Perhaps it's because everyone I knew owned several horses. Some people owned whole herds and would refer to their horses in numbers rather than by name. (You know when someone asks how many head of horses you have, chances are they have more than just a few themselves.)

Horses are herd animals and, like people, they spread infectious diseases quite easily because they enjoy living in close proximity to each other. In equine dense states like Florida, Oklahoma, and Texas, nose-to-nose contact between barbed wire fences, participation in events like jackpot ropings and rodeos, and other shin digs all increase the likelihood of regional outbreaks. Just the sheer number of horses on one ranch alone can make the numbers seem alarming to those not familiar with horse keeping in that particular region. Many of my own tiny herd have either been exposed to or had an equine infectious disease at one point or another. This is true because, like some other horses in Oklahoma, they were pulled off a range where they lived with many other horses before I bought them. Here they were exposed to bovine viruses (which is linked to sarcoids), strangles and other infections.  Once I purchased them, having a health certificate before they traveled was State law and a big part of why I wasn't losing sleep over those nasty infectious diseases.  A licensed vet told me they were good to go. More on this in a minute.

Here, in Maine, we have a growing horse population. And, for the most part, our horses live vastly different lifestyles. In general, we don't have thousands of acres of pasture for big breeding operations, nor do we usually have more than a dozen of horses at one location. We tend to buy from outside sources rather than breed (although that does happen).  Furthermore, most of our horses have been handled and seen by a vet before the age of two. Outbreaks, when they do happen, seem a bit more isolated but, that also means the source of the disease may be a bit harder to nail down. While that in of itself seems like a scary thing, knowing that we're not helpless to mitigate the risks with information can give us peace of mind.

First, seek information about vaccinations and equine infectious diseases whether your an expert horseman or woman, or a total green-horn.  Things change, science is cool like that, and keeping up to date on the latest research is fun. Think of it as cowboy or cowgirl street cred.  We try to revist the issue early Spring before vaccination time.  As tack store owners, we're lucky because we get bulletins from suppliers, supplement companies and industry publications. But, there are at least 3 really great sources we always rely on who are more than willing to share their knowledge and help everyone out in this regard.

1) First, and foremost, the best source of information is your veterinarian. Vets are the people in the trenches going on farm calls dealing with running noses, temperatures, and general equine malaise.  They are obligated to report equine infectious diseases to the State for a variety of reasons.  Suffice it to say, these people will have the skinny on what's a concern and what's not and they can rule out ailments like the dreaded, OMG I'm a Worry Wart Virus which my horse Star seems to contract at least once a year.

2) If you want to read about equine infectious diseases that are indigenous or invasive to your particular area, there's no better source than your local University Extension Office. Here's a link to UMaine's Extension Office Publications Catalog. There's a whole lot of reading material there.  This is also a great site for any other agricultural issue you might want more information about. And, it's all free! How cool is that? 

As an example, this is the type of information the University Extension Office offers to the public.  (We've pulled out Strangles because that's been a topic of concern this week.) 

Bulletin #1009, Facts on Strangles (Streptococcus Equi) Infections in Horses.  

This means there's probably 1008 other publications for you to peruse in your free time, too. In each bulletin is important information in easy to read format, like this.  "Strangles is a reportable disease in Maine, your veterinarian is obligated to report any confirmed cases to the state veterinarian" (UMaine, Bulletin #1009). So, this tells us, if you're really worried, you pick up the phone and call your local vet's office to have your horse seen. Those sniffles could be nothing.  But, he or she is in the best position to help you out and if it is something, they'll be reporting it to the proper authorities to ensure it doesn't get out of hand. 

3) And, lastly, there are plenty of great sources on the internet if you know where to look. (Just be sure they are trusted sites and not a message board or blog...ahem.) This particular link is great because "[t]he communication system is designed to seek and report real time information about disease outbreaks similar to how the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) alerts the human population about diseases in people" (EDCC, web).  Incidentally, this site also lists your State Veterinary Office. (Just click on your state to get the info!)  Click on the "diseases" page to get links to all the possible equine diseases that are tracked there.

Northern Tack wanted to know how horse owners in Washington County could mitigate the risks of equine infectious diseases and be prepared for outbreaks and so we reached out to Maine's State Veterinarian, Michele Walsh.  One of the things she stressed was how important it was to use the resources we already have available (outlined above) especially your vet. "There are good vaccines available that will protect your horses from infectious diseases.  Your vet can administer them now ahead of the higher risk mosquito season".  She explained how vaccinating early was one of the best prevention methods available. She went to say that it could mean the difference between a sick horse and a healthy one when diseases find themselves tracking north to our neck of the woods. Many of these things are completely preventable! 

She also explained the process of reporting infectious diseases to the State.  Here's a link to the types of diseases that, by law, must be reported.

There are two types of reporting--immediate and monthly--under the equine section.  Diseases like Strangles fall under the monthly reporting.

Monthly Reporting
Equine Protozoal Myeloencephalitis
Potomac Horse Fever

Immediate Reporting
Contagious Equine Metritis
Eastern/Western Equine Encephalitis
Equine Herpes Myeloencephalitis
Equine Infectious Anemia
Equine Piroplasmosis
Equine Viral Arteritis
Vesicular Stomatitis
West Nile Virus

This alone should make you feel a little better because one of the State Veterinarian's missions is to "prevent the introduction and spread of contagious, infectious and parasitic disease among poultry and livestock, especially those diseases transmitted to humans, directly or indirectly" ( By monitoring the diseases and working collaboratively with our local vets, they're able to keep a watchful eye on the current state of illnesses and future or potential outbreaks, too.   So, your local vet really has access to all this information and knows what's going on and they'll be the one that lets you know if you need to quarantine your horse. 

She also emphasized the importance of knowing your animal's health history before you bring it home.  "When you purchase a new horse, you should know your horse's history and request a health certificate".   

This makes perfect sense. When we bought our horses, we insisted on it.  We wouldn't think of buying one without a current health certificate.  This ensures that a licensed veterinarian has thoroughly checked out our lifelong commitment.  In fact, depending on why you're buying a horse, Northern Tack would also recommend leg x-rays if you plan on riding.  It's important to understand that unfortunately some horses are sold at auction due to illness and injury and they find their way into the domestic horse market.  This means a horse can be sound looking without actually being sound (or safe) to ride.  Leg x-rays will tip you off to old injuries that can be problematic in the future or reiterate what a great deal you've just come across!  Horses can also be carriers or have compromised immune systems due to underlying health issues.  Health certificates work to minimize the chances you'll be dealing with that.  Some vets refer to this as a "pre-purchase exam". Ask your vet about it, you'll be really glad you did. 

And, because we know you like reading, this is a great source for questions to ask before you buy your next horse from our friends at University of Connecticut's Extension Office. Again, notice the part about vaccines?

Lastly, when we brought our new horses home, we kept them in a separate round pen away from the other horses for 30 days. Even with health certificates, we recognized there might be something that hasn't reared it's ugly head yet. (Excuse the bad pun).  By doing this, we limited exposure of the potential ailment to the rest of the gang.  Being mindful of potential issues, is one reason that I wouldn't be in a big hurry to rush my new purchase out to an event where other horses are congregating either.  This is why most organizations require health certificates and/or coggins papers and/or vaccination records in order for horses to participate.  This is a good thing for the protection of all the horses in the area.  And, again, you can get the low down (and paperwork) from your vet.

So, the bottom line is to call your vet, especially if your horse is showing symptoms. But, if not, call him or her anyway to schedule a time to get vaccinated.  And, if you're buying a new one, be sure to get a health certificate FIRST no matter where you get it from.  Quarantining them for a period of time is a good idea, too. Don't be afraid to reach out to others who are more experienced for additional information and, did we mention to call your vet?  Take a look at ours.  Now, who wouldn't want this guy to showing up with sharp pointy objects?  (Yes, this is Dr. Ron Miles from Foxcroft Veterinary Services.)