Canada and Germany Locked in CEM Conflict

A 7-year-old warmblood stallion from Germany is at the center of a storm of controversy after testing positive for contagious equine metritis (CEM) upon importation to Canada. The horse, appropriately named What’s Going On, had tested negative for CEM before leaving Germany.

CEM is a sexually transmitted disease that causes no symptoms in stallions, but can cause temporary infertility in mares. Since Canada is officially CEM-free, Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) officials declared that owner Evelyn Frei had two options for the horse—return him to Germany, or have him destroyed.

Test results conflicted because Germany uses a seven-day incubation period for cultured samples taken from breeding stock. Canada, by contrast, requires a 14-day incubation period, based on CFIA data indicating that some samples only test positive after 10-13 days of incubation. Canadian regulations also stipulate that imported stallions, aged two and older, must be test-bred to two mares, which subsequently must test negative for CEM.

Frei’s stallion highlighted long-standing inconsistencies in import procedures from Germany and led to the Canadian government halting all equine imports from Germany as of July 6 until the German government’s testing procedures more closely match Canadian requirements. While Germany has indicated it is willing to adjust those procedures, it has closed its borders to Canadian horses in retaliation, effectively making it impossible to return the horse.

“It’s really become a political standoff at this point,” Frei explains. “It’s got nothing to do with my horse or with CEM anymore.”

Both of the mares bred in quarantine tested negative for CEM, and a second test on the stallion was negative. The stallion was not imported as breeding stock, rather as a performance horse, and before quarantine he had never bred a mare. Frei has offered to geld the horse or treat him for CEM, but these solutions were rejected by the CFIA. (CEM can usually be eradicated by washing the horse’s genitalia with an antibacterial solution and applying nitrofurazone ointment; other countries with CEM-free status routinely and successfully use this treatment on CEM-positive imports from Europe.)

Since the horse had not been bred, it’s likely that if he did have CEM, he acquired it from his dam. CEM is relatively common in many European horses, and both mares and stallions can become carriers of the bacterium.

At press time, the CFIA had extended the deadline until Sept. 12 for What’s Going On to be returned to Germany or to be destroyed. However, even if Frei is permitted to ship the horse back to Germany, it will be costly.

Debbie Barr, DVM, a veterinary import specialist with the animal health and production division of the CFIA, notes, “A single negative test does not mean the horse is free of CEM. The second test is a moot point because the animal came in under an import permit which required the animal to be CEM-free. When a permit is issued, it spells out all of these policies ahead of time.” Likewise, she says, gelding What’s Going On is no solution, because as the law sees it, the permit was issued for a stallion. Barr points out that, “CEM is not a disease with a clear consensus as to what to do. The United States has a policy of treating CEM-positive horses, but New Zealand’s policy, for example, reflects Canada’s.”

Stringent Canadian import policies have protected livestock from a wide variety of foreign animal diseases, she says. “It might not be CEM next time. It might be foot and mouth disease or mad cow disease. There is no legal flexibility written into the policies for individual cases.

“We have not been approached by the horse industry to change the policy,” says Barr, acknowledging that this case might prove to be the catalyst for that process. Meanwhile, Barr indicates that the CFIA is more than willing to help Frei negotiate with German officials to secure an import permit. “We’d like to see the horse out of the country.”

About the Author

Karen Briggs

Karen Briggs is the author of six books, including the recently updated Understanding Equine Nutrition as well as Understanding The Pony, both published by Eclipse Press. She's written a few thousand articles on subjects ranging from guttural pouch infections to how to compost your manure. She is also a Canadian certified riding coach, an equine nutritionist, and works in media relations for the harness racing industry. She lives with her band of off-the-track Thoroughbreds on a farm near Guelph, Ontario, and dabbles in eventing.

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