Nine Tips on Keeping Your Horse Safe from Pests

Steps like vaccinating against disease, protecting horses from fly and mosquito exposure, feeding in dry areas, and ensuring feed is properly stored can help maintain your horse's health in the face of insects, pests, and scavengers.

Photo: Thinkstock

Did you remember to shut the lid on your feed barrel this morning? If not, you could be welcoming pests in for a snack!

As a horse owner, keeping your horse safe and healthy is a number one priority. And sometimes, just a couple of small changes can help keep your horse safe from disease and infection caused by pests.

Here are nine tips to remember:

1. Vaccinate your horse. This might sound simple, but many horses that aren’t up-to-date on their vaccinations. Check with your equine veterinarian to make sure you are not missing any critical vaccinations.

Following the initial two-dose series that’s needed for most vaccinations, a single combination vaccine can help protect horses against four of the five diseases for which the American Association of Equine Practitioners recommends vaccinating against. These diseases include West Nile virus (WNV), Eastern equine encephalomyelitis (EEE), Western equine encephalomyelitis (WEE), and tetanus.

And, although it’s uncommon in horses, rabies should not be ignored because the disease is almost always fatal for the animal that shows clinical signs. Thus, it’s important to vaccinate your horse each year to ensure he’s protected. Rabies is usually transmitted through saliva when an infected animal bites an uninfected animal. Horses infected with rabies can show numerous signs of disease, including a loss of appetite, depression, lack of coordination, aggressive behavior, and paralysis.

2. Maintain fresh and clean water. Pesky mosquitoes, known to breed in standing water, can transmit dangerous diseases to your horse. Most notably, mosquitoes are known to be carriers of WNV and EEE, which mosquitoes contract after biting an infected bird. Both potentially deadly diseases affect the central nervous system, and can result in clinical signs including facial or limb paralysis, muscle twitching and impaired vision.

3. Protect your horse’s feed. Equine protozoal myeloencephalitis (EPM) is considered one of the leading causes of neurologic problems today. Almost every part of the country has reported cases of EPM.

Sarcocystis neurona, one of the organisms that cause EPM, is spread by the feces of its definitive host—the opossum. Horses can become infected while grazing, eating contaminated feed, or drinking contaminated water.

Contact your veterinarian if you notice signs of EPM, which can include incoordination; abnormal gaits and lameness; weakness; muscle atrophy; paralysis of muscles of the eyes, face, or mouth; difficulty swallowing; seizures or collapse; abnormal sweating; loss of sensation along the face, neck, or body; and head tilt with poor balance. Several commercially available treatment options can help horses recover from this disease and stop the infecting parasite from inflicting further damage to the central nervous system.

4. Keep insects at bay. The best known and most often used protection from mosquitoes and other flying insects is fly spray. There are many types on the market with a wide variety of ingredients, and the one that will work best depends on the horse, use, location, and type of insect causing the problem. Rotation between different types could help prevent resistance and maintain effectiveness. Make sure that if you rotate that it is based on different active ingredients rather than different manufacturers. Also, consider fly sheets, masks, and boots for horses that seem particularly bothered by flying pests.

5. Discourage scavengers. Clean up any dropped grain and feed barn cats or dogs extremely carefully to discourage scavengers from taking up residence in your barn. This can help limit your horse’s exposure to areas with high concentrations of wild animals like skunks and raccoons. Though all mammal species are capable of contracting and spreading rabies, these are two of the most prevalent carriers. Good horsekeeping practices can discourage unwanted visitors like opossums from contaminating hay, grain, and bedding.

6. Restrict your horse’s grazing near bodies of water. While it might be handy to have a natural water source in your horse’s pasture, it could be putting him at risk of disease. Unlike other insect-borne diseases such as WNV and EEE, Potomac horse fever (PHF) is not caused by the insect actually biting a horse, but by the horse ingesting infected aquatic insects such as damselflies, caddisflies, and mayflies. While these insects are typically found near rivers or creeks, horses can also ingest them through water buckets or hay.

Though difficult to diagnose due to its similarities to other diseases, clinical signs of PHF can include fever, decreased intestinal sounds, and diarrhea. Further, 40% of horses diagnosed with PHF subsequently develop lamanitis. Consult your veterinarian about vaccinating to help protect horses against PHF.

7. Watch for ticks. Horses are susceptible to Lyme disease, which is caused by bacteria carried by Ixodes species of ticks. Lyme disease can be difficult to diagnose because of ambiguous and varied clinical signs of the disease—including limb lameness, weight loss, low-grade fever, generalized stiffness, hypersensitivity to touch, and poor performance—resulting in no definitive statistics regarding the number of horses impacted by Lyme disease. It’s still possible to defend your horse against the disease by using a fly spray that has been proven effective on ticks generously, especially on your horse’s legs. Evaluate your horse daily and manually remove ticks, if needed.

8. Stay informed about potential diseases. Be aware of what diseases are being reported in your area and locations where you might be travelling to. Numerous online resources are available for this purpose, and talking to local veterinarians is another option for staying up-to-date.

9. Talk to your vet. Equine veterinarians are the experts when it comes to your horse’s health. However, in 2011, only 53.8% of horse owners participating in one survey had veterinary visits for their horses. Contact your veterinarian if your horse is overdue for a visit, or if you have any questions regarding your horse’s health.

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