Working Equid Disease: A South African Vet's Perspective

Working Equid Disease: A South African Vet's Perspective

Alan Guthrie, BVSc, MedVet, PhD, director of the University of Pretoria's Equine Research Centre, in South Africa, checks out some of the harness equipment constructed at The Donkey Sanctuary's facility in Debre Zeit, Ethiopia.

Photo: Stephanie L. Church, Editor-in-Chief

“The country of South Africa wouldn’t be where it is today if it wasn’t for the working equid,” said Alan Guthrie, BVSc, MedVet, PhD, director of the University of Pretoria’s Equine Research Centre, in South Africa. “It was developed on the back of the working equid. And one of the interesting things is that neither horses nor donkeys are native to Southern Africa. They were introduced in the 1600s and have … played an important part of our development.” 

Guthrie, who studies equine diseases such as African horse sickness, spoke with The Horse at the first Havemeyer International Workshop on Infectious Diseases of Working Donkeys, held Nov. 19-21, 2013, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. His vantage point on the issue of disease in working equids is unique in that his country is one of the wealthier countries on the continent (considered largely an upper-middle income economy) and has very large populations of both high-performance horses and working horses.

“We are fortunate where we are in South Africa, we have a very well-developed infrastructure,” he said. “The level of veterinary science is very high, we have good facilities, we have good support, and we’ve had active research programs … going on for hundreds of years.

Historically, veterinarians in this country were focused on diseases of working equids—whether used in the military or on the farm. “Nowawdays there’s a lot more emphasis on the sporting horse, but we still have very important equids out in the field that are working equids,” Guthrie says. “And for the people who own those equids, it’s their whole livelihood. It’s not only his business; it’s also his motorcar. So when they lose one of those animals to an infectious disease, the impacts, it’s not only on that animal, it’s (the) possibility of a person now being unemployed and homeless.”

African horse sickness outbreaks are common in South Africa, and donkeys and zebras can act as reservoirs of the disease because they are more resistant to the virus. 

Influenza outbreaks also hit in 1987 and 2003, a disease that’s generally not found in the country. In the latter outbreak, flu crossed over from high-performance animals into the working cart horse community, and vaccination campaigns made it possible for the animals to get back to work quickly.

This situation points out an important aspect of researching and managing equine disease in South Africa: “Obviously there’s spillover between (the horse populations), and if you exclude the one group from your equation, you’re going to end up with a major problem on your hands."

About the Author

Stephanie L. Church, Editor-in-Chief

Stephanie L. Church, Editor-in-Chief, received a B.A. in Journalism and Equestrian Studies from Averett College in Danville, Virginia. A Pony Club and 4-H graduate, her background is in eventing, and she is schooling her recently retired Thoroughbred racehorse, Happy, toward a career in that discipline. She also enjoys traveling, photography, cycling, and cooking in her free time.

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