Getting the Germs Out

You've heard it before, but here it is one more time: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. With this in mind, it's time to take a serious look at disinfecting barns and equipment where horses are housed. When it comes to disease, and the spread of disease, prevention in the form of disinfecting equipment and barns is as important as vaccinating horses. And in some instances, as with strangles, disinfection ranks higher than vaccination because there is not an effective vaccine available for strangles. But with proper disinfection, the spread of that disease could be reduced drastically.

Courtesy Gluck Equine Research Center

When a new or sick horse leaves the isolation stall, the stall should be thoroughly disinfected.

Disinfecting is important in reducing the spread of disease because, "It reduces the level of bacteria and viruses present in the environment, particularly in the stalls and barns housing horses," said David Powell, BVSc, MRCVS, FRCVS, of the Gluck Equine Research Center at the University of Kentucky.

Disease-causing pathogens are found in the environment, including soil, manure, and dust, and while it is not possible to disinfect everything with which the horse will come in contact, it is an important management procedure to disinfect barns and equipment in order to control the spread of disease. Something else to keep in mind, according to Roberta M. Dwyer, DVM, Diplomate American College of Veterinary Preventive Medicine, of the Gluck Equine Research Center, is that, "More than 50% of individual cases of diarrhea and respiratory disease are not diagnosed as being caused by a particular organism. Farm managers need to consider unknown factors present in the environment, and that the presence of organic matter such as manure, urine, blood, discharges, and dirt can render some disinfectants useless."

Because the cause of diarrhea and other diseases might never be known, it is important to use a disinfection program designed to eliminate the majority of "bugs" that could be in the environment. The accompanying chart shows which disinfectants are effective on specific pathogens.

Proper Hygiene

In order to keep the spread of disease to a minimum, proper hygiene on the part of the owner and farm help is required. According to Powell, any time a new horse comes onto the farm, or a resident horse becomes ill, it should be quarantined. Ideally, a quarantine facility should be located away from the main barn, but in reality, this is difficult if not impossible in most cases. The next best thing is to create a quarantine stall in the main barn that is located near an exit door of the barn. In either case, the goal is to keep this area as far removed from the resident horse population as possible in order to prevent the spread of disease.

The following precautions should be taken by anyone handling the horse in the quarantine stall.

1. Always handle the sick or new horse last. For example, feed it after all the other horses have been fed. Doing this will greatly reduce the risk of spreading disease-causing organisms that you might be carrying on your hands, shoes, or clothing.

2. Make sure to wear latex gloves and rubber boot protectors when medicating or otherwise treating or handling sick horses.

3. After a sick horse has been handled, soak any clothes that were worn in a disinfectant solution for 10 minutes before washing them in order to kill any disease-causing organisms that could be on them and possibly be transmitted to healthy horses.

4. As a good hygiene practice, wash hands and any equipment periodically with a disinfectant soap to help kill any pathogenic organisms. Not only should this be practiced when a horse is in the isolation stall, but it also should be adhered to when caring for horses in the rest of the barn for added safety.

5. Thoroughly disinfect the isolation stall once a horse leaves it.

Disinfection Around The Pregnant Mare

While disinfecting is important, Powell also said that there are some viruses and bacteria that prove to be beneficial to the pregnant mare if she is exposed to them. The immunity the mare builds up to these pathogens will then be passed on to the foal, which will aid the newborn in fighting disease in its environment. Powell said, "Ideally, when you bring in a pregnant mare you'd like to bring her in at least a month before she foals so that she can, in fact, be exposed to the environment--the same environment that her new foal will be exposed to."

It's a balancing act, added Powell. On one hand you want to place the mare in a clean environment, but on the other hand a mare which is exposed to a certain number of disease organisms will build up an immunity that then can be passed on to the foal. If it's done successfully, this act of balancing disinfection and exposure to key pathogens in the environment will provide the newborn with the best immunity to its environment when it arrives.

According to Powell, disinfection of the barn area where the foal will reside is mainly done to control the pathogens to which the foal will be exposed, rather than for the mare. He said, "Disinfection is primarily important for the newborn foal and at foaling time. The reason being that the foal, from its inexperience to being subjected to pathogens, is much more vulnerable to them than older horses."

This is where the balancing act comes into play. If the mare has been exposed to pathogens, either through vaccinations or naturally through her environment, then the foal will inherit those antibodies which will enable its immune system to ward off potential viral or bacterial threats.

General Disinfection

When a new or sick horse leaves the isolation stall, the stall should be thoroughly disinfected. In addition to disinfecting the stall, all the equipment with which the horse has come into contact will need to be disinfected. Keep in mind that pitchforks, wheel barrels, water buckets, and feeding tubs are included in the list of equipment that needs disinfecting before being used again.

Disinfectants used in this process should be chosen carefully. There are many solutions on the market, but make sure the one you choose will be effective in a barn environment, according to Dwyer. Read the label closely, and remember that a barn is much different than a hospital or human environment. If you have any unanswered questions, call the manufacturer before you purchase the disinfectant and spend the time disinfecting an area since this is a labor-intensive process that should take about an hour and half for each stall.

A galoline, or electric powered steam cleaner will make disinfecting easier, but if this type of equipment is not accessible, then a garden hose with a nozzle on the end to pressurize the water stream is acceptable. When prepping the stall for disinfecting, start with the top of the stall and work your way down, according to Powell.

Dwyer advises the following steps when disinfecting a barn and equipment:

1. Remove all buckets, feed tubs, and bedding from the stall.

2. Wash all feed equipment with a detergent or soap and water, and rinse with potable water. Soaking and scrubbing might be necessary to remove all organic matter. Allow equipment to dry thoroughly.

3. Sweep the walls and floor of the stall to remove as much organic matter as possible.

4. "Steam clean" the walls and floor with an anionic detergent or a phenolic disinfectant-detergent compound. Alternatively, spray the walls using a water hose with a pressure valve and manually scrub the walls and floors to loosen organic matter. Wetting the surfaces and leaving for 30 minutes will soften "caked-on" matter and allow for easier cleaning.

5. Rinse all surfaces with water, paying close attention to cracks, corners, and crevices.

6. Dilute the phenolic disinfectant in accordance with the instructions of the manufacturer. Wear protective clothing, including eye goggles. Apply the disinfectant to the walls and floors and allow to dry. Repeat this step. Do not rinse!

7. Fill the stalls with clean bedding and replace the feed buckets and equipment.

8. All equipment used in the stalls (e.g. pitchforks, rakes, brooms, and brushes) should be soaked for 10 minutes in disinfectant solution, scrubbed clean, then sprayed with the disinfectant and allowed to dry. Brushes and grooming equipment should be cleaned in a similar manner.

9. Towels, contaminated clothing, and other machine-washable materials should be soaked for 10 minutes in a disinfectant solution, then washed in hot water.

10. The stall and equipment are now ready for a new occupant.

Dwyer also mentioned that the type of material of which a barn is constructed makes a difference in how you disinfect. Horse facilities are made of a variety of materials, from wood, metal, concrete, asphalt, etc., and the type of material should be kept in mind when disinfecting because some, such as wood, are much more porous than others like metal or plastic. The porous materials are going to house more pathogens, so the disinfecting process should be more thorough on these surfaces.

"Raw wood is the most commonly used in constructing stall walls in horse facilities," said Dwyer. "As wood is porous and has a rough surface, disinfection is practically impossible. However, wooden stalls can be modified to enable routine disinfection. All organic matter should first be brushed or swept away from the wood surface. A 'plastic wood' product or caulking should then be used to fill in any knots or holes in the wood. The wood should be painted with two coats of heavy-duty varnish (such as that used on boats) allowing the varnish to dry between applications. This will result in a smooth surface which is waterproof, and easy to clean and disinfect. It will also lengthen the life of the wood by preventing dry rot."

Disinfecting barns and equipment, along with vaccinating, will reduce the chances that your horses will encounter disease-causing pathogens. While the process of disinfecting is time-consuming, and it's one that needs to be repeated periodically, the process will leave you with healthier horses. Disinfecting also is an economic advantage because you will save money by preventing diseases, rather than treating them.

About the Author

Tim Brockhoff

Tim Brockhoff was Staff Writer of The Horse:Your Guide to Equine Health Care from 1995 to 1999. His degree is in Agricultural Communications from the University of Kentucky, and his equine experience is with American Saddlebreds.

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