Diary of an EHV-1 Survivor

Twenty-year-old Radar "just wasn’t looking right" when he came in from the pasture on April 6, recalls his owner, Bill McCarthy, PhD. "When I picked his feet up to pick them out, he would just fall into me," said McCarthy. "The next day the state came out and diagnosed him with the virus (equine herpesvirus type one, or EHV-1)."


Dr. Bill McCarthy stayed with Radar as the horse made his recovery (above). Radar spent much of his illness in a sling on loan from Days End Farm Horse Rescue (below).



Radar has completely recovered from his bout with EHV-1 and McCarthy expects to be riding the horse by this fall.

Radar was one of nine horses at the Columbia Horse Center in Columbia, Md., to be stricken with neurologic EHV-1. Of the nine, only three survived, including Radar.

"It was like the Andromeda Strain," said McCarthy of the scene at the horse farm. "It was frightening. We had to wear special gowns, use 10% bleach foot baths, and spray ourselves down after we left the farm--everything to try and minimize contamination.

"It looked really bad in the beginning," said McCarthy. "Radar was a strange case. He never had a fever, never looked sick. The day before he was out in the paddock running and playing. That night when they brought him in, he was beginning to look a little depressed and lethargic, and he had a strange look. When I picked his feet that night he was shaky and leaning into me. That next morning he was completely neurologic."

McCarthy says an EHV-affected horse looks like it has mad cow disease. "They have no control over their hind end and the disease slowly but surely works its way forward," recalled McCarthy. "The vet said if Radar could make it through the first 48 hours, he would have a 50/50 chance, but that chance doesn’t mean much. It took a while before we were able to see something that said Radar was going to make it."

McCarthy explained Radar’s slow recovery process once the horse was diagnosed with EHV-1. "As soon as the neurologic signs were noticed, we placed Radar in a standing stall. He couldn’t move around, but he stayed up," he said. The standing stall was created out of a two-horse trailer divider and used to pin Radar up against the stall wall. He was housed in the stall from April 7-12.

Radar was also fitted with an intravenous (IV) line, through which DMSO (dimethyl sulfoxide) was administered as a systemic anti-inflammatory medication to try and minimize the paralysis. "Two or three hours after the IV was put in, there were some changes, and within a day he was able to salivate a little and drink some water," said McCarthy. Radar was removed from the IV after five days when the paralysis eased up in his throat and he was able to chew feed and drink water.

Acyclovir, an antiviral drug that helps boost the immune system and keep the viral disease from replicating, was also given to Radar. "I would feed him the drug mixed with grain and molasses," said McCarthy.

To help Radar rest, an Anderson sling was assembled in his stall. "Days End Farm Horse Rescue here in Maryland loaned us the Anderson sling an hour after the Horse Center called them," said McCarthy. "They came down and set it up for us and showed us how to use it.

"It was a slow healing process," he said. "We started to gradually lower the sling so he could take more and more of his weight. Then we loosened it so he could start to move around more. We actually got to the point (on April 15) where we could hold the sling by the straps and we would walk him a little down the aisle. Then we let him out of the sling during the day to stand in his stall, but at night we put him back into the sling.

"On April 19 we decided to see what he would do at night," he recalled. "I just sat in front of the stall watching. Radar circled around a little bit in the stall. I could tell he wanted to lie down and sleep. Eventually he lowered himself and went down. He was very weak and shaky and just fell. He grunted a little bit, rolled, then 20 minutes later he just popped back up. That is when I knew he was going to make it."

McCarthy continued to help Radar regain his strength by taking him on short walks in the indoor arena beginning on April 23, and they gradually built up the pace and time spent exercising. McCarthy let Radar loose in the indoor on April 28, and Radar was allowed to graze in a small outdoor paddock on May 8. By May 14, Radar was turned out in a paddock with a few of his friends, and he was back to a normal turnout schedule the beginning of June.

As for riding, McCarthy plans on having Radar fit enough to begin under saddle work in the fall. "I could probably speed up the process, but my veterinarian said it is best not to rush him," said McCarthy. "Any stressors can cause additional problems, and with a 20-year-old, you have to be more careful."

About the Author

Marcella M. Reca Zipp, MS

Marcella Reca Zipp, M.S., is a former staff writer for The Horse. She is completing her doctorate in Environmental Education and researching adolescent relationships with horses and nature. She lives with her family, senior horse, and flock of chickens on an island in the Chain O'Lakes.

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