Disease Hampers Britain's Horse Movement

Representatives from 27 British equine organizations met in London on March 1 to discuss the potential for spread of foot and mouth disease (FMD), which affects only cloven-hooved animals. The disease was discovered in pigs at a slaughterhouse in Great Britain on Feb. 20.

It has since spread to Northern Ireland, and there is fear that it has made its way to continental Europe. Although FMD does not infect horses, threat of spreading the virus cancelled a week of racing in Britain and caused much confusion over the legal movement of horses.

Foot and mouth disease is an acute, highly contagious, viral infection spread mainly by animal movement, but also potentially spread by particles in the air. "The horse is not susceptible to FMD, does not get the disease, and does not act as a silent reservoir of the disease," said Dr. Andrew Higgins of the British Equestrian Federation (BEF). "Horses and their handlers can, however, carry the virus mechanically, i.e., on hooves, boots, and vehicles. And the virus can survive in the mud for up to one month."

Susceptible animals include pigs, cattle, sheep, goats, and deer. Although livestock movement and exports have been banned, The U.K. government has excluded horses from the restrictions, except on or off an infected farm. The U.K. Equine Industry Infectious Diseases Committee set protocols for the equine industry to follow to help prevent inadvertent spread of the disease.

"The U.K. Jockey Club is about to issue strict guidelines for trainers and racecourses, and a modified version will be adopted by the BEF," said Higgins. "This will include picking out and disinfecting horses' feet before transport; thorough inside and outside disinfection of vehicles transporting horses between journeys; and disinfection pads for other vehicles and pedestrians entering events."

The last major outbreak of FMD in the U.K. was in 1967. According to Peter Timoney, FRCVS, PhD, head of the Gluck Equine Research Center at the University of Kentucky, the disease caused tremendous financial losses and destruction of animals, because infected animals must be slaughtered and their carcasses incinerated. "The epidemic was catastrophic by any standards; this one will be of equal magnitude," he said. "For the individuals whose stock have been affected, it's not just a dollars and cents issue. It can result in the loss of bloodlines that go back two or three generations in a family. We're talking about people directly affected, whose livelihood relies on the livestock industry. All of these people ultimately suffer."

"It's a state of paralysis," said Tim Cordes, DVM, Senior Staff Veterinarian of Equine Programs at the USDA. "It's clearly going to affect horse shows and horse races."

The latest on the foot and mouth outbreak is available from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Food web site, www.maff.gov.uk/animalh/diseases/fmd/default.htm.

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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