Useful things to know about Equine Influenza

With all the attention worldwide now concentrated on the cancelled spring competitions, some more common concerns could slip the mind of the disappointed aficionados of horseracing. Despair not: Ireland is still running on all four, for example, as are Santa Anita, Gulfstream Park and Tampa Bay Downs. Punters are active too and you can find offers on horse-bettors.com if you just cannot do without a good wager. On the other hand, horse health is a serious issue so it is a good time to refresh your knowledge of one of the most widespread ailments that can make your four-legged friend unhappy: equine influenza (EI).

EI is very contagious and can cause large outbreaks easily. A classic example is the one that happened in 2007 in Australia, that was completely influenza-free at the time, triggered by only eigth infected imported horses. In less than two months a peak of 1000 cases per week was reached on 10651 premises. The damage to the country’s horse industry was considerable, what with cancelled horse races and shows, police horses that had to be kept off the streets, a reduced number of breedings and of the subsequent shrinking of the foal crop. Australia managed to eradicate EI completely in less than a year, with strict policies of containment.

That was never the case with the US, where equine influenza is considered endemic. And yet, EI is not such a minor problem. Apart from the discomfort that it can cause your horse, its impact will be felt by your pocket: it can be as high as $885 per horse, which includes diagnostics, treatment, and time off from training and competition. If it gets out of hand causing a large outbreak, it can lead to the cancellation of events with much heavier economic disruption.

Therefore it is wise to get acquainted with the recommendations of the World Organisation for Animal Health, aka the Office International des Epizooties (OIE), the Paris-based intergovernmental organization coordinating, supporting and promoting animal disease control. OIE lists equine influenza in its Terrestrial Animal Health Code and countries are obligated to report the occurrence of the disease.

According to OIE’s factsheet, “EI is spread by contact with infected animals, which in coughing excrete the virus. In fact animals can begin to excrete the virus as they develop a fever before showing clinical signs. It can also be spread by mechanical transmission of the virus on clothing, equipment, brushes etc carried by people working with horses. Clinical signs include fever and a harsh dry cough followed by a nasal discharge. Depression, loss of appetite, muscle pain and weakness are frequently observed.” Vaccination is highly recommended as the best measure of prevention, accompanied by careful hygiene, especially if you take part in events where you can come in contact with infected horses:

  • Use only your own (sanitized) equipment for feed, water, grooming, and other care.
  • Disinfect tack and equipment that might have been used on or near infected horses (at a show, for example).
  • Thoroughly wash your exposed skin (with antiseptic soap) or clothing.

Most important, if you notice your horse showing the symptoms, contact your vet immediately. EI is rarely fatal and it usually resolves in a couple of weeks, but it can sometimes lead to complications (pneumonia) or take a much longer time for the horse to recover completely.