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Here in the UK there has been an outbreak of a new strain of Equine Influenza (flu). This strain has infected both unvaccinated and more significantly vaccinated horses. There have so far been cases diagnosed in Ireland, Essex, Yorkshire and Newmarket (Suffolk).
Due how easily Equine Influenza can be spread and the fact it is affecting vaccinated horses, the Animal Health Trust (AHT) has issued a warning to expect a widespread outbreak. The British Horseracing Authority (BHA) has cancelled racing fixtures today to help prevent the spread of infection and will likely continue to make cancellations.
What is Equine Flu?
Equine Flu is a highly contagious respiratory disease caused by a virus. Similar to the human flu virus, it is constantly evolving new strains of the pathogen to be able to infect animals with immunity. This is why your horse needs a yearly flu vaccination and why occasionally vaccinated horses come down with flu.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms typically include; a dry cough, runny nose, loss of appetite, high temperature, runny eyes, red eyes, swollen lower limbs, depression and swollen glands under and around the jaw. Horse’s may not display all these symptoms and the combination of symptoms will vary from horse to horse, so be vigilant.
Most symptoms will clear up in 1-2 weeks, with the temperature usually returning to normal in 1-3 days. But the cough can last for quite a while afterwards. In the past I have talked about how important it is to know what’s normal for your horse, so if you don’t already have an idea of their normal TPR, start checking it so you have an idea incase they start to develop symptoms.
How is it spread?
Equine influenza is airborne and highly contagious. It will quickly spread through horses living closely together. Equine flu can be spread both directly (horses coughing the virus into the air) and indirectly (handlers passing the virus onto other horses via their clothing). It has an incubation period of 48 hours, which means they have 2 days to pass on the virus before they start showing any signs. And horses can continue to pass on the virus for a week after they first start showing symptoms.
How serious is it?
Equine influenza itself often isn’t too serious in horses. But it can leave them vulnerable to other secondary infections which can have more serious consequences. Foals and older/sick horses are more at risk due to their weaker immune systems.
What is the treatment?
Due to this being caused by a virus, the main treatment for horses is rest in a well ventilated stable, returning to turnout once their temperature has returned to normal. Horses should not return to work until they have been free from symptoms for at least two weeks. However, other treatments such as antibiotics can be used to treat secondary infections which have resulted from the flu.
Preventing Equine Flu in your horse
As with most diseases, prevention is much better than treatment! So all horse owners in the UK should be taking steps to prevent equine influenza coming to their yard. Hopefully you already vaccinate your horse routinely against equine flu, and if you don’t you really should as your insurance company may not pay out otherwise! So here are some extra steps you should be taking to prevent your horse and yard coming into contact with equine flu.
The AHT has recommended that any horse who hasn’t had a flu vaccination in the last 6 months gets a booster. Scottie hasn’t had one in 8 months so I am currently arranging a booster for him. As even though he isn’t leaving the yard too much at the moment, we have lots of horses in the area and horses on our yard do come and go regularly.
Consider Cancelling Your Outings
Yes it can be very disappointing to have to cancel your show or clinic. But you really don’t want to be exposing your horse to equine flu. Or even worse, you may be bringing the flu with you and be infecting everyone else. Several people on my yard had competitions planned but everything has gone on hold. We are lucky to have a vet on our yard and she has said if there are no new cases in the next 2 weeks, we are probably okay to start cracking on again. But until then we aren’t going anywhere.
If you are still going to be taking your horse out and about, take extra precautions. Don’t let your horse graze on the show ground or have any interaction with other horses or owners of other horses. Take all your own hay, water and feed and don’t share anything with other horses away from home.
Quarantine on your yard
For most small yards you probably won’t have much space to quarantine horses. And chances are it will spread through the yard before you can isolate the sick horse. But be vigilant. Keep an eye out for any signs of flu in your horse and other horses on the yard. Restrict your and your horses contact with other horses on the yard where possible. And if one horse does come down with flu, try your best to put some type of quarantine in place.
Don’t be Selfish
Just because your horse is in peak fitness, doesn’t mean you should risk the health of other horses on your yard. You should work as a team and not take silly risks with one horse which could easily impact the rest of the yard.