Talk of Disease Online Sparks Concern Among Horse Owners

A flurry of interest arose this week on an Internet message board started by individuals who think their sick horses' fatal diseases are linked. As a result, veterinarians are cautioning horse owners not to jump to conclusions in diagnosing their own animals or linking past cases with the alleged disease, because at this time, no disease claims have been substantiated.

Since March 2, horse owners have been posting to a bulletin board about a disease they termed "Whisper Syndrome" after the deceased horse (named Whisper) of John Holland of Shawsville, Va. That horse died after a rapid onset of clinical signs that included inappetence, neurologic signs, and colitis. He posted information about his horse's clinical signs on the message board, and many horse owners have responded, suggesting their horses might have had the same problem.

Holland said he and his veterinarian "both feel that this needs to be understood, but we also want to make it clear that this is far from being an epidemic. There are just a number of compelling cases scattered all over the East. Most have occurred in the last 60 days."

The bulletin board can be found here:

Phillip Sponenberg, DVM, PhD, professor of pathology and genetics in Virginia Tech's Department of Biomedical Sciences & Pathobiology in Blacksburg, Va., necropsied Whisper's body. He said that necropsy results were inconclusive. Posts on the message board today suggested that Sponenberg would be re-examining parts of the horse in the coming days.

The information on the message board has included claims of disease in Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wyoming.

Top veterinarians from Florida, Kentucky, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia told The Horse that they have not seen anything unusual or suspicious that aligns with the concerns expressed on the message board.

Ron Wilson, DVM, Dipl. ACVP, state veterinarian and diagnostic laboratory director of Tennessee, said, "A lot of the clinical signs you could almost say were consistent with a lot of different diseases, and many animals that die that display those signs, so it's easy for someone to have lost a horse and say, 'That's what my horse had,' when it could be an array of different diseases. I haven't seen any admissions to our diagnostic lab that have been such that the pathology had indicated that we have anything unusual going on here, so I can't say that we've recognized a new syndrome as such…we have horses that die with similar signs with a variety of different causes."

Tracy A. Bell, DVM, of Bell Veterinary Services in Lexington, Va., initially showed an interest in the clinical signs described on the message board because she treated two unusual cases that included some neurologic signs in the past three weeks. Both mares were on the same farm, but Bell says that what they had does not appear to be infectious. One mare died, and the other is recovering. "The animals were down and unable to get up on their own," she said. "The differences between the two cases were the times they showed neurologic signs and the bloodwork was different." One mare showed neurologic signs immediately; the other had neurologic signs 24 hours after she became clinically ill. No diagnosis has been reached yet, but Bell says botulism test results will be received next week.

On the claim that many horses are being affected by the identical problem, "Mr. Holland sent me 26 of them (descriptions of cases)," said Bell. "I looked at those 26 and found maybe eight that shared similarities. The unfortunate scenario is that those eight were not totally worked up, so there's no way to know definitively how much alike they were."

Veterinarians advise horse owners to exercise caution in self-diagnosing cases. Recent posts to the message board have suggested Listeria as a culprit, but Sponenberg said there was no evidence of Listeria, and Bell agreed.

Bell added, "There might potentially have been some sort of environmental situation that's allowed something to proliferate, whether it's a bacteria like clostridia or this coliform bacteria (which was cultured from her client's horse that died). This is obviously not something that is spreading from horse to horse. And I don't think that it's to the degree of people think it is.

"Some of these cases that (Holland) sent to me definitely sounded like colic, some definitely salmonella," said Bell. She is confident that her cases were not listeriosis. "We definitely have a negative on the one, and the other one we're not going to test, because she's doing OK right now. I would warn owners not to read too much into generalized symptoms. If their animal gets sick, I would encourage them to pursue a diagnosis with their veterinarian rather than to assume it’s the 'Whisper Syndrome.' "

The horse's attending veterinarian and Virginia Tech veterinarians were to release a statement about Whisper and the concerns expressed on the message board, encouraging horse owners to not jump to conclusions.

Elaine J. Lidholm, director of the Office of Communication and Promotions in the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said, "We have not issued a statement and I don't believe we will be doing so because this has not become a media issue in Virginia yet.  I realize the Internet is everywhere, but we've heard from no one besides The Horse.

"We have checked with the diagnosticians in our animal health diagnostic laboratories and with the state's veterinary community, and we are not aware of any unusual increases in either mortality or disease incidence in Virginia horses," added Lidholm.

The Horse is continuing to follow this story.

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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