Practical Biosecurity for Horse Farms

Photo: Megan Arszman

Reducing potential infectious disease outbreak risks can be challenging, but farm owners can take steps to minimize introducing and spreading these diseases, said Roberta Dwyer, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVPM, a professor in the department of veterinary science at the University of Kentucky. These include traffic control, education, and a clean environment.

Vaccination is an important (though not 100% effective) safety measure for disease prevention, Dwyer said. Horse owners should work with their veterinarian and staff to create a biosecurity plan and vaccination program for their farm. Veterinarians define biosecurity as a set of control measures designed to break the cycle of and reduce the spread of infectious diseases. A biosecurity plan should include fly, rodent, bird, and pest control and prevention, as well as traffic control on the farm.

Disease Agents of Concern
Causes of equine disease outbreaks include rotavirus, Salmonella, equine herpesvirus, equine influenza, equine arteritis virus, rhinoviruses, Streptococcus equi, and Rhodococcus equi. Of the bacterial and viral pathogens that infect horses, clostridial organisms are some of the most difficult to kill.

"Be careful when you read social media (about disease outbreaks)--always get information confirmed to avoid panic and misinformation," Dwyer said.

Isolating a Sick Horse
According to Dwyer, owners should immediately isolate any horse with a nasal discharge, cough, fever, or diarrhea from other horses and consult the farm veterinarian. Disinfect any stalls or barns that housed sick horses.

"Isolate sick, new, and horses returning from a show or event for approximately two weeks to help reduce the risk of them introducing an infectious disease to the resident horses," Dwyer said.

When performing daily chores, muck sick horses' stalls last and avoid spreading the infected manure or bedding on fields. Also wear protective clothing and disposable gloves to help stop contagious disease spread between horses and people, Dwyer said.

Prevention is Best
Traffic between barns and horses creates potential contamination sources, such as when horses return from racing, showing, veterinary hospitals, etc. Thus, veterinarians highly recommend traffic control as a disease prevention method.

"Separate broodmares from competition horses and youngsters to avoid exposure to high-risk horses," Dwyer said.

As mentioned, quarantine is another central measure to protect resident horses from those that have co-mingled with others at shows, sales, and events off of the farm.

Pest and rodent control are also part of an efficient biosecurity plan. Reducing standing water helps limit the next generation of flies and mosquitoes, Dwyer said. Keep feed rooms, tack rooms, and other stable areas tidy and well-swept; this will help prevent mice and rodent issues.

Human traffic also carries potential for disease spread. Therefore, advise blacksmiths, trainers, veterinarians, and visitors to disinfect boots and wash hands before entering the barn and handling horses. This can be accomplished easily with an alcohol-based hand disinfectant. Provide running water, liquid hand soap, and clean paper towels in every barn to encourage employees to wash their hands. If running water is not available, a liquid hand sanitizer is an effective substitute, Dwyer said.

Sharing equipment such as water buckets and feed tubs also poses a risk of spreading pathogens from one horse to another, said Dwyer. This is especially important to remember while at horse shows and on trail rides. If you do let people borrow equipment, be sure to clean and disinfect that equipment thoroughly prior to using it on your own horses.

Use detergent and water to clean surfaces prior to using a disinfectant, as organic matter such as manure, discharges, and soil can inactivate even the best disinfectant. This cleaning step is critical to an effective disinfection program, and prevention is generally easier than cleanup, Dwyer said.

When choosing disinfectants, consult a veterinarian for guidance as to which is most effective for the surface being treated. Disinfectants available on the market include phenols, quaternary ammonium compounds, and peroxygenase compounds.

"Work out a plan with your staff and veterinarian that includes frequent cleaning routines," Dwyer said. "A clean environment always reduces the risk of spreading disease."

Shaila Sigsgaard is a contributing writer for the Bluegrass Equine Digest.

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