An equine skin disease from the mid-19th century is making a surprise comeback in the UK as a direct result of horse neglect.
Verrucous Pastern Dermatitis was eliminated from horses in the British Army during the Crimean War, but is making an alarming reappearance, according to World Horse Welfare (formerly ILPH). The disease, which develops as a direct result of standing in damp, muddy and unhygienic conditions is just one of an increasing number of skin diseases being seen by skin experts in the UK, as a direct result of horse neglect.
Over the last five to 10 years there has been a massive 25% increase in reported cases of Verrucous Pastern Dermatitis. At the same time a significant increase in other skin diseases such as sarcoids, mud rash and canker, affecting the legs and hooves of horses is reported by Professor Derek Knottenbelt, leading expert in skin diseases in horses, from the University of Liverpool.
“In 1973 sarcoids affected around 1.5% of the horses in the UK but this has risen to over 6% now. The numbers don’t look high but in a population of over a million horses this is an enormous increase of around 45,000 cases.” Professor Knottenbelt says.
This rise in the number of cases of skin diseases directly corresponds with World Horse Welfare’s statistics which show an increase of nearly 50% in the overall number of concerned welfare calls to the charity in the past five years.
Professor Knottenbelt says: “If these diseases were preventable during the Crimean War, when horses spent their days and nights knee deep in mud, then they’re surely totally preventable today. The reason we’re seeing such an alarming increase in the number of new cases is largely a result of owners’ ignorance and regrettably in many cases, neglect.”
Once these conditions develop it becomes increasingly difficult to control their progression. Prevention is inevitably better than cure but prevention involves regular and careful checking and appropriate care. Early detection of any disease gives opportunities for treatment, chronic neglect usually means that treatment is difficult, disappointing and usually expensive.
World Horse Welfare’s UK Operations team now takes over 33,000 calls a year. As a result of these calls over the past 12 months a nationwide team of 16 Field Officers investigated a record 1700 individual welfare concerns, involving one or multiple horses or ponies.
According to Professor Knottenbelt there are two major reasons for the resurfacing of skin diseases like Verrucous Pastern Dermatitis: “Firstly, owners often try to manage disease themselves in an attempt to save money and most owners have had a good go at any skin disease before any professional person has been consulted. Often owners seek advice from the internet and administer dubious treatments which, in lots of cases, render the condition virtually impossible to treat, causing unnecessary pain and suffering to the horse. In some of the severe diseases like Verrucous Pastern Dermatitis the affected animals often have to be euthanized.
“The second main reason is that some people simply don’t care and treat their animals like disposable machines. Owning a horse is a privilege and carries significant responsibilities.”
Exactly a year ago, World Horse Welfare encountered its first case of Verrucous Pastern Dermatitis in a horse named Guinness. One of Guinness’s hind legs had swollen over a long period of neglect to three times the size of the other. Ramsay Duncan of Woodside Veterinary Group, who treated Guinness says: “I had never seen anything like it before. His leg was severely infected and hundreds of maggots were burrowing into his flesh. We were advised that Guinness should be euthanized and consulted Professor Knottenbelt and he confirmed the disease as Verrucous Pastern Dermatitis.”
Treatment of Guinness’s disease has been slow, expensive and has involved a pioneering operation, performed by leading equine surgeons at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies’ Large Animal Hospital at the University of Edinburgh, but he is on the road to recovery and now features on World Horse Welfare’s website, where he can be ‘adopted’ for £5 per month.
“Guinness has been lucky,” says Professor Knottenbelt. “He had the determination and expertise of the people at World Horse Welfare to help him pull through. There are many others who are not so fortunate.”