Handling Equine Disease Outbreaks

Handling Equine Disease Outbreaks

While even the best biosecurity measures can't prevent all outbreaks, knowledge about handling outbreaks once they do happen will ensure the best health possible for all horses involved.

Photo: Photos.com

You hear the raspy cough coming from the third stall, and you wince. Even if you’ve been careful about preventing infectious diseases on your farm, you know you can’t stop them all. Unfortunately, disease outbreaks do happen. But what you do next is what can make the difference in the outcome of that outbreak.

First things first: consider the risk of the symptom. Certain clinical signs should always raise red flags with owners and barn managers, as they could be early indicators of infectious disease, said Roberta M. Dwyer, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVPM, professor in the University of Kentucky’s College of Agriculture, Food and Environment and director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Veterinary Science.

“Coughing, diarrhea, fever, and neurologic symptoms including behavior changes should all be considered seriously,” Dwyer said. “My rule of thumb is that you should consider diseases (especially with these symptoms) to be contagious until proven otherwise.”

Certain skin lesions such as round patches of hair loss could also be signs of something contagious (ringworm, for example), but these diseases are not usually as medically serious, she says. If you suspect an infectious disease, don’t panic, but do keep your horse in an isolated area and call your veterinarian immediately.

In the meantime, take the horse’s temperature, pulse, and respiration rates, and look at his gums. If you don’t know how to do these things yourself, it could be a good idea to get training for these basic care tasks, Dwyer said. “This is the sort of information you could relay to your veterinarian over the phone on your initial phone call,” she said. It’s also a good idea to be sure your horses have been trained to easily accept these veterinary measures before they get sick, she added.

Take necessary precautions to prevent further disease spread—in case it does end up being contagious—by using disposable gloves when handling the sick horse, Dwyer advised. Wear coveralls that you keep in front of the isolation stall, and wear disposable booties or rubber boots that can be scrubbed and disinfected. Better yet, designate one person on the farm as caretaker of the sick horse(s) only. And don’t use the same equipment on the sick horse that you use on healthy horses—including halters, lead lines, grooming equipment, and even mucking tools like pitchforks, shovels, and rakes—as all of these could transmit pathogens if the horse is actively shedding them.

Horses that are pastured together should be separated from the sick horse even if they’re not showing clinical signs, said Dwyer. Bring sick horses up to a barn or shelter away from the other horses, or at the least set up safe, portable fencing to keep the sick horses in a separate area, out of healthy horses' reach. It might seem unnecessary if all the horses have already been exposed to their pasturemate's disease, but separation can still help reduce continued exposure to pathogens.

“A healthy horse might be exposed to a small dose of pathogens and still be able to fight off the infection,” she says. “But a healthy horse exposed to an overwhelming dose, even if it’s been vaccinated, could still incubate the disease and develop symptoms. So if you can minimize the contamination in the pasture, that can help.”

Once the veterinarian makes a diagnosis, work closely with him or her to understand the specifics of the pathogen itself. “Each pathogen has a different shedding pattern, so quarantines and management need to be left up to the advice of the veterinarian,” Dwyer said.

Finally, once the disease outbreak has passed, thoroughly clean and disinfect any housing, equipment, or clothing that came into contact with the sick horse(s) to prevent a renewed outbreak, said Dwyer.

While even the best biosecurity measures can’t prevent all outbreaks, knowledge about handling outbreaks once they do happen will ensure the best health possible for all horses involved.

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More information on Gluck Equine Research Center and UK Ag Equine Programs.

About the Author

Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA

Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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