Do we need to practice social distancing with our horses?
4/22/2021 4:27:00 PM
Social distancing, mask wearing, hand washing, and the dreaded nasal swab have become part of our normal life during the COVID-19 pandemic. The equine industry faces similar types of outbreaks, but placing a mask on a horse isn’t feasible. However, there are ways to prevent disease spread within the equine community.
The recent increase in horses affected by herpesvirus neurologic disease in North America and Europe reminds us that herpesvirus (EHV-1) remains a constant threat for horses. The virus, which causes upper airway infection and abortion, is highly contagious and easily transmitted between horses (Figure 1). Although there are vaccines for this virus, these vaccines are not completely effective and do not protect against the neurologic form of the disease, which is often fatal. The best protection to limit the spread of this disease is appropriate biosecurity, including isolation and social distancing.
Like COVID-19, equine diseases such as equine herpesvirus and equine influenza are highly infectious and spread by contact or by inhalation of micro-organisms on particles in the air or water. When an infected horse coughs or sneezes, tiny particles are spread. Viral diseases can also be spread by horse-to-horse contact or by contamination on commonly touched surfaces. Bacterial diseases such as Strangles are also transmitted through contact—from horse to horse or by horses touching common areas such as watering systems, tack, and grooming equipment. Both viruses and bacteria can be spread by humans working with an affected horse and carrying it to other horses.
Keeping horses separated is one of the most important steps in biosecurity to help prevent disease spread. When an infectious disease is suspected or confirmed, all horses in the same facility or on the same premise are at risk of becoming infected. Keeping horses separated in stalls or at a separate facility is crucial to stop the transmission of diseases to other horses. With very contagious diseases like equine herpesvirus, a quarantine is often necessary to stop all horse movement and limit movement of people on the affected premises.
Social distancing only works if appropriate sanitation measures and careful separation of tools and equipment are in place while caring for infected horses. Just as hand washing is needed to help control Covid-19, it is important that hands, clothing and any objects that come in contact with more than one horse are sanitized between horses (Figure 2).
If a horse is suspected or confirmed to have an infectious disease, horse owners should employ the following protocol to help prevent disease spread.
- Immediately isolate the horse showing signs of an infection.
- Implement movement restrictions of the affected horse and possibly exposed horses until the situation is evaluated.
- Contact your veterinarian or the event veterinarian and ask what you should do.
- Inventory horses, identify and isolate potentially exposed horses, and immediately implement health monitoring: take temperature twice daily (a temperature above 101.5° F suggests the horse has an infectious disease) and observe for clinical signs of depression or abnormal behavior.
- When more than one owner or caretaker is involved, establish communication with all parties.
Additional protocol detail is available in “What Horse Owners Should Do During the First 30 Minutes of a Suspected Infectious Disease Outbreak.” Save the document as a PDF to your mobile device for future reference at https://aaep.org/sites/default/files/WhatToDo_EDCC_Final.pdf.
The Equine Disease Communication Center is dedicated to stopping the spread of disease through communication and education. Please help by donating to the EDCC at https://equinediseasecc.org/support-us.
About the Equine Disease Communication Center
The EDCC is an industry-driven information center which works to protect horses and the horse industry from the threat of infectious diseases in North America. The communication system is designed to seek and report real-time information about diseases similar to how the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) alerts the human population about diseases in people. The EDCC is based in Lexington, Ky., at the American Association of Equine Practitioners’ headquarters, with a website and call center hosted courtesy of US Equestrian. The EDCC is funded entirely through the generosity of organizations, industry stakeholders and horse owners. To learn more, visit www.equinediseasecc.org.
Figure 1: Given the opportunity, horses will communicate by touching noses, which is one way to transmit infectious diseases.
Figure 2: Implements, including tack, need to be sanitized before use between horses.