Rabies: Eliminate The Risk

Never before have horse owners been as aware of the threat of equine illness as this spring and summer. The list of potential nasties has read like a virtual "Whoâs Who in Equine Diseases." Such terms as encephalitis and West Nile have become household words, and we have gone to great lengths to protect our horses from potential vectors of disease such as ticks and mosquitoes.

But what happens when a fox or raccoon comes staggering unnaturally into your barn area in the middle of the day? Is your horse protected from the age-old threat of rabies?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 82 cases of rabies in horses in 1998, a 74.5% increase over 1997 and the highest number of cases reported for any year since 1981. Many veterinarians in susceptible areas of the country would like to give a "heads up" to horse owners, and remind them not to skip their horsesâ rabies vaccinations.

"We are presently in the midst of solving a recent exposure here at Texas A&M," says William Moyer, DVM. "Rabies in horses is obviously a problem in Texas. The problem with rabies in horses is that these animals can show up with a myriad of signs, not the classic view that the public has of ÎOld Yeller.â The original complaint can be as varied as colicky signs, lameness, coordination deficits, or theyâre off their feed. This kind of problem puts everyone at risk."

Areas other than Texas have tangled with rabies recently, namely Florida and Pennsylvania.

"A factor (in occurrence of rabies cases) is population encroaching into the wildlife areas," said William Jeter, DVM, Assistant Chief of Animal Disease Control for the Division of Animal Industry in Florida. "The interface between (potentially rabid) animals and horses has become greater," thus increasing the risk of transmission.

According to the National Animal Health Monitoring Systemâs Equine â98 Study (www.aphis.usda. gov/vs/ceah/cahm), "vaccination against a specific disease often parallels the real or perceived risk of the animal being exposed to or acquiring the disease. In 1998, the smallest percentage of operations vaccinating against rabies was in the western region of the U.S., and the largest was in the northeast (see map). In the previous 12 months, 24.5% of resident horses (other than broodmares) over 12 months of age had been vaccinated for rabies in the U.S."

Fortunately, rabies isnât a problem everywhere. According to veterinarians at universities in some Midwest and Western states, numbers of rabies cases have been holding steady, or they might have not faced rabies in many years. "I know of only one equine rabies case confirmed at Colorado State University Teaching Hospital since I came in 1983," says Josie Traub-Dargatz, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM. She adds, "We see very little rabies in livestock in our region, and I do not believe most vets in our area recommend rabies vaccination for horses."

Ask your veterinarian about the risk of rabies exposure in your area, and vaccinate accordingly.

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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