African Horse Sickness – what is it?

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Among the symptoms of African Horse Sickness are fever, sweating, breathing difficulties, discharge from the nose, and swelling of the eyes and/or head.
Among the symptoms of African Horse Sickness are fever, sweating, breathing difficulties, discharge from the nose, and swelling of the eyes and/or head.

African Horse Sickness is a variant of the Bluetongue virus of sheep which is principally carried and transmitted to horses by Culicoides species midges.

It is endemic in the African continent and is characterised by clinical signs and lesions associated with respiratory and circulatory impairment. Up to 90% of infected horses die. There is no efficient treatment. Prophylactic vaccines are available in Africa but none is approved for use in the European Union.

Insecticides, repellents and screens to repel the vector midges are a crucial element in preventative horse management.

There are nine distinct types of the Reoviridae family which cause AHS.

Although AHS is not directly contagious (ie, it is not transmitted directly between horses), it can remain in infected horses for up to 18 days, enabling it to be transferred via the biting midges.

Control of the disease in the UK would be achieved by slaughter of infected animals, destruction of the carcasses, and the establishment of a protection zone of at least 100 kilometres radius around infected premises. This, together with a surveillance zone of at least a further 50km remains in force for at least 12 months. The scale of the zone is because virus movement over long distances via windborne infected vectors is possible.

Its appearance in the UK could spell the death knell for horse racing and all other forms of equestrian sport.

Dogs which have eaten infected horse meat may also become carriers of the disease.

Horse owners should look out for any signs of illness in their horses, such as:

  • fever
  • sweating
  • lack of energy
  • breathing difficulties
  • coughing
  • discharge from the nose
  • excessive salivation
  • restlessness
  • swelling of the eyes and/or head.

If any of these symptoms occur, put the horse in a separate closed stable and consult your veterinarian as soon as possible.The World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) says that the Incubation period of AHS is usually 7-14 days, but may be as short as 2 days. It also gives the following information:

Clinical diagnosis

  • Subclinical form: fever (40-40.5°C) and general malaise for 1-2 days
  • Subacute or cardiac form: fever (39-41°C), swelling of the supraorbital fossa, eyelids, facial tissues, neck, thorax, brisket and shoulders. Death usually within 1 week
  • Acute respiratory form: fever (40-41°C), dyspnoea (difficulty breathing), spasmodic coughing, dilated nostrils with frothy fluid oozing out, redness of conjunctivae, death from anoxia (respiratory failure) within 1 week
  • A mixed form (cardiac and pulmonary) occurs frequently: pulmonary signs of a mild nature that do not progress, oedematous swellings and effusions, death from cardiac failure, usually within 1 week
  • In the majority of cases, the subclinical cardiac form is suddenly followed by marked dyspnoea and other signs typical of the pulmonary form
  • A nervous form may occur, though it is rare


  • Interlobular respiratory form: oedema (fluid) of the lungs, hydropericardium (fluid around the heart), pleural effusion (fluid in the chest cavity), oedema of thoracic lymph nodes (swelling), petechial haemorrhages in pericardium (pin-point haemorrhages in the membrane surrounding the heart)
  • Cardiac form: subcutaneous and intramuscular gelatinous oedema, epicardial and endocardial ecchymoses (bleeding into the tissues of the heart), myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle), haemorrhagic gastritis

Differential diagnosis

  • Anthrax
  • Equine infectious anaemia
  • Equine viral arteritis
  • Trypanosomosis
  • Equine encephalosis
  • Piroplasmosis
  • Purpura haemorrhagica

In the 1950s an epidemic of AHS spread from India to the near East, leading to the death of an estimated 800,000 equines. In the mid-1960s it broke out in Spain, where it was controlled by a rigorous slaughter policy, only to appear again in both Spain and Portugal in 1988-90 and 1989 respectively.


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One thought on “African Horse Sickness – what is it?

  • August 7, 2014 at 4:27 am

    I have a stud I bought from the state of texas, I began to see him lose weight, does not drink a lot of water I have given him antibiotics now what ever was in him is trying to come out of his skin he looks terrible I have had horses all my life and I have not seen this happen to any of the horses I have owned he looks like a starving horse not enough water intake slow movement as well no fever eats a lot but real skinny I need help


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