Protecting horses from infectious diseases

When horses intermingle on the farm, at stables, competitions, and other events, respiratory diseases can spread like wildfire. Now is an excellent time for horse owners to work with their veterinarians to implement infectious disease control programs that keep horses healthy during the active months ahead.

The Threat

Respiratory diseases can be devastating, including highly contagious equine influenza, a viral disease that is widespread in nearly every country. Equine flu attacks the horse’s respiratory tract, including the windpipe and lungs. To recover, the horse needs at least 6 weeks of rest. Secondary complications can develop, requiring extended recovery time and costly treatments.

An infected horse can transmit the virus through direct contact with other horses. The virus also can spread from indirect contact, such as via contaminated feed and water buckets, stalls, grooming equipment and human clothing.

Signs and symptoms of flu include:

  • Dry, harsh cough
  • Elevated temperature
  • Watery nasal discharge
  • Lack of appetite
  • Lethargy
  • Muscle soreness
  • Painful glands under the jaw

Equine flu is not the only troublesome threat for horses. Other dangerous and highly contagious respiratory diseases include the equine herpes virus, which can result in neonatal death and paralysis, and strangles, a bacterial infection that attacks a horse’s lymph nodes and causes multiple health issues.

Decrease the Chances of Your Horse Getting Sick

An infectious and contagious disease control program works well when two key components are in place:

  • A vaccination program
  • Healthy management practices for horses on the farm and on the road

A comprehensive vaccination program is proven to help protect horses from multiple diseases. Vaccination is safe and inexpensive compared to treatment costs once a horse gets sick. Vaccines work by stimulating an immune response in the horse that tricks the body into thinking it is being attacked by the disease. The horse’s body responds by producing antibodies and killer cells to fight the infection. After vaccination, if natural infection occurs, the immune system is poised to fight the infection.

But vaccination is not a simple one-shot-deal, where the horse owner can rest easy once vaccination is complete. Horses do not respond to vaccination immediately; a response period is required, as well as multiple doses in most cases. Also, not all horses respond to vaccination in the same way. Age, vaccination history and other factors can affect the immune response in an individual horse. In addition, vaccinated horses may not show signs of the disease but they can act as carriers, so all horses on the same yard, whether they leave the premises or not, should be immunized. A veterinarian is best equipped to help horse owners implement an effective vaccination program for their herds.

Establishing a vaccination program and healthy management practices may seem overwhelming or time-consuming for some horse owners. But an outbreak of infectious, contagious diseases can be physically destructive for the horses you love.

Veterinarians are well-equipped to help horse owners implement prevention programs that defend against and prevent the spread of equine respiratory diseases.